Books I Never Wanted to EndCreated by on December 7, 2010
“What a wild ride — I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough,” Oprah Winfrey told her viewers as she announced Fall on Your Knees as her February 2002 Book Club selection. Set largely in a Cape Breton coal mining community called New Waterford, ranging through four generations, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s dark, insightful and hilarious first novel …
They're all dead now.
Here's a picture of the town where they lived. New Waterford. It's a night bright with the moon. Imagine you are looking down from the height of a church steeple, onto the vivid gradations of light and shadow that make the picture. A small mining town near cutaway cliffs that curve over narrow rock beaches below, where the silver sea rolls and rolls, flattering the moon. Not many trees, thin grass. The silhouette of a colliery, iron tower against a slim pewter sky with cables and supports sloping at forty-five-degree angles to the ground. Railway tracks that stretch only a short distance from the base of a gorgeous high slant of glinting coal, towards an archway in the earth where the tracks slope in and down and disappear. And spreading away from the collieries and coal heaps are the peaked roofs of the miners' houses built row on row by the coal company. Company houses. Company town.
Look down over the street where they lived. Water Street. An avenue of packed dust and scattered stones that leads out past the edge of town to where the wide, keeling graveyard overlooks the ocean. That sighing sound is just the sea.
Here's a picture of their house as it was then. White, wood frame with the covered veranda. It's big compared to the miners' houses. There's a piano in the front room. In the back is the kitchen where Mumma died.
Here's a picture of her the day she died. She had a stroke while cleaning the oven. Which is how the doctor put it. Of course you can't see her face for the oven, but you can see where she had her stockings rolled down for housework and, although this is a black and white picture, her house-dress actually is black since she was in mourning for Kathleen at the time, as well as Ambrose. You can't tell from this picture, but Mumma couldn't speak English very well. Mercedes found her like that, half in half out of the oven like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. What did she plan to cook that day? When Mumma died, all the eggs in the pantry went bad - they must have because you could smell that sulphur smell all the way down Water Street.
So that's the house at 191 Water Street, New Waterford, Cape Breton Island, in the far eastern province of Nova Scotia, Canada. And that's Ma on the day she died, June 23, 1919.
Here's a picture of Daddy. He's not dead, he's asleep. You see that armchair he's in? That's the pale green wingback. His hair is braided. That's not an ethnic custom. They were only ethnic on Mumma's side. Those are braids that Lily put in his hair while he was asleep.
There are no pictures of Ambrose, there wasn't time for that. Here's a picture of his crib still warm.
Other Lily is in limbo. She lived a day, then died before she could be baptized, and went straight to limbo along with all the other unbaptized babies and the good heathens. They don't suffer, they just sort of hang there effortlessly and unaware. Jesus is known to have gone into limbo occasionally and taken a particularly good heathen out of it and up to heaven. So it is possible. Otherwise....That's why this picture of Other Lily is a white blank.
Don't worry. Ambrose was baptized.
Here's one of Mercedes. That opal rosary of hers was basically priceless. An opal rosary, can you imagine? She kept it pinned to the inside of her brassiere, over her heart, at all times when she wasn't using it. Partly for divine protection, partly out of the convenience of never being without the means to say a quick decade of the beads when the spirit moved her, which was often. Although, as Mercedes liked to point out, you can say the rosary with any objects at hand if you find yourself in need of a prayer but without your beads. For example, you can say it with pebbles or breadcrumbs. Frances wanted to know, could you say the rosary with cigarette butts? The answer was yes, if you're pure at heart. With mouse turds? With someone's freckles? The dots in a newspaper photograph of Harry Houdini? That's enough, Frances. In any case, this is a picture of Mercedes, holding her opal rosary, with one finger raised and pressed against her lips. She's saying, "Shshsh."
And this is Frances. But wait, she's not in it yet. This one is a moving picture. It was taken at night, behind the house. There's the creek, flowing black and shiny between its narrow banks. And there's the garden on the other side. Imagine you can hear the creek trickling. Like a girl telling a secret in a language so much like our own. A still night, a midnight clear. It's only fair to tell you that a neighbour once saw the dismembered image of his son in this creek, only to learn upon his arrival home for supper that his son had been crushed to death by a fall of stone in Number 12 Mine.
But tonight the surface of the creek is merely as Nature made it. And certainly it's odd but not at all supernatural to see the surface break, and a real live soaked and shivering girl rise up from the water and stare straight at us. Or at someone just behind us. Frances. What's she doing in the middle of the creek, in the middle of the night? And what's she hugging to her chest with her chicken-skinny arms? A dark wet bundle. Did it stir just now? What are you doing, Frances?
But even if she were to answer, we wouldn't know what she was saying, because, although this is a moving picture, it is also a silent one.
All the pictures of Kathleen were destroyed. All except one. And it's been put away.
Kathleen sang so beautifully that God wanted her to sing for Him in heaven with His choir of angels. So He took her.
The Idyll Inn, the setting for Joan Barfoot’s brilliant eleventh novel, Exit Lines, is a pastel-hued care facility designed for seniors ”with healthy incomes but varying hopes, despairs, abilities and deformities.“ In scathing detail, Barfoot describes the Idyll Inn’s plastic plants, inoffensive art and pallid recreational activities, all f …
AT THREE IN THE MORNING . . .
At three o’clock in the morning, that defenceless hour when anything feels possible and nothing human or inhuman out of the question, the Idyll Inn’s only sounds are the low hum and thrum a complicated building makes to keep itself going. Like any living body, even a sleeping or unconscious one, a building has to sustain its versions of blood and breath, so there’s a perpetual buzz to it, white noise in the Ânight.
With only those faint sounds for companionship, three o’clock in the morning is an uneasy hour for the wakeful. It is also the most discreet hour for dodgy, unsavoury acts. Still, while those abroad tonight in the Idyll Inn may find their moods swinging between severely apprehensive and hopeful, there remains potential for a kind of slapstick comedy. If they are discovered, whether too soon, too late, or quite irrelevantly, their lookout will bumble about causing as much tripping and confusion as possible, while the others are to divert authority with exclamations and flailings and Âjostlings.
If all goes well, there’ll be no repercussions. If all does not, they’ll be in big trouble. They have chosen nevertheless, not lightly, to draw on whatever reservoirs they possess of determination. Stubbornness. Will. Solidarity in the cause of friendship and, they suppose, of its surprisingly expansive Âboundaries.
On their side is the unassailable fact that whatever transpires, barring Âon-Âthe-Âspot discovery, the odds are decent that no one will ever find out. Resistance is high, they understand, to seeing them clearly at all. Or as one of them has previously remarked, ”Most people would rather paddle the Amazon than be tourists around here.“
People are cowards, she Âmeant.
So were they, Âonce.
Well, they can’t be cowards tonight. In the morning, though, the real morning, they intend to have a bit of a Âlie-Âin. Either life will go on as unaltered and perilously as life at the Idyll Inn ordinarily does, or they’ll be indulged with extra treats and particularly kind words. Either way, it’s nice to have cosiness and comfort to look forward to, if only because the prospect of even a small reward at the end helps keep a person going, Âreally.
GOOD BUSINESS, WELL ÂDONE . . .
Nearly four seasons back, during a blessedly balmy spring run of Âlate-ÂApril days, Âmove-Âin time has finally come to the Idyll Inn. From start to Ânear-Âfinish, from plans and permits to all the necessities and some of the graces, construction on this plot of riverside land in this small city has taken just eight months, including the periodic disruptions of winter. During this time and even before, when it existed only in theory, the place has been an object of interest and curiosity; in some cases, suspense; in a few others, Âdesperation.
This Idyll Inn is the latest addition to a small chain that is not locally based. The corporation is not called something obvious like Idyll Inn Inc. or Ltd., but is a numbered company run by a management group on behalf of a collective of professionals, mostly dentists and doctors, interested in untroublesome, steady investment in what’s bound to be a growth industry. The expectation is that as the chain thrives, it will become a bigger firm’s takeover target, so from every perspective, present and future, its investors must Âprosper–Âhow can they Âlose?
The paved parking lot, which will be adequate for the ordinary run of events, is insufficient for so much simultaneous activity, so each day during Âmoving-Âin week there’s a muddle of small vans and trucks arriving with their loads of possessions, leaving not much later empty. There is, too, considerable risk of dented fenders, bumped bumpers, in all the forwarding and reversing and squeezing by large and small cars, many of them occupied by tense Âmulti-Âgenerational groups up to their necks and nerve endings in emotions of one sort and Âanother.
How purposefully strangers hustle through the parking lot, how swiftly and surprisingly movers wielding sofas and chairs in the corridors overtake those slowly taking up Âresidence–Âhow alarming and Ârude.
Never mind, their day will Âcome.
At this stage in the numbered company’s expanding history, there’s a vast, detailed, operational template governing services, menus, staffing levels, recreational offerings, cultural and religious observances, decor and other fundamental amenities, right down to the number and location of phone connections in individual suites. Overall design, however, varies from one Idyll Inn to another, depending on ÂÂlot size and shape. This Idyll Inn, if viewed from the unlikely vantage point of the air, more or less resembles a sperm: a rounded head with a long Âtwo-Âstorey Âtail.
The tail section contains forty suites, twenty up, twenty down, all brightly painted, with shiny fixtures in their bathrooms and large windows in their main rooms. The main room in each suite provides lots of space, adaptable to individual taste, for chairs and sofa as well as TV set and sound system, coffee table, an end table or two, and various meaningful Âknick-Âknackeries. Each suite also contains an array of Âbuilt-Âin cupboards, closets, drawers and shelves for storage and display purposes, which means that bedrooms don’t have to contain closets and drawers, and so can be on the small side, really only big enough for a human or two plus bed and side Âtable.
Ten Âmain-Âfloor suites along one side of the Âsperm-Âtail’s long central corridor even have decks attached, which will be useful for outdoor leisure activities such as sitting in lawn chairs in the upcoming good weather. Those rooms and decks, which overlook the river flowing by, or in deep summer, drying up, are more expensive than the rest, and not everyone can afford the extra cost on top of what is already a substantial basic Ârent.
That rent includes the friendly, communal, Âwell-Âintentioned features located in the Âsingle-Âstorey part of the building which would, from the air, form the plump head of the sperm. Circling about from the main Âdouble-Âdoored entrance are several rooms: a large lounge with plants and paintings, low tables, soft chairs and hard ones, where sociable people are expected to gather to chat and play cards or word games, or to rattle away at the computer on a desk in one corner; a crafts and activities room with long schoolroom tables and chairs, and tall cupboards behind whose doors are the papers, glues, paints, yarns and mosaic tiles that are to become drawings and placemats and small candy dishes; a laundry room, another benefit of the place, one more dull burden lifted; a kitchen outfitted with Ârestaurant-Âquality cooking and refrigerating equipment; the open space of the dining room, where almost everyone upstairs and down will gather for breakfast, lunch and supper at round tables, getting to know each other quite swiftly, if they don’t already, for better or worse. Since this Idyll Inn is located in such a small city, a mere forty thousand citizens give or take, it’s safe to assume that many residents will already know, or at least know of, each other. Again, for better or Âworse.
The dining room’s grandest feature is a great wall of windows facing, like the most costly suites, the river that winds by bearing ducks, canoeists, anglers, assorted debris. Better than television, is the idea; and also light, as has been proven, affects people’s spirits. Research in design indicates that a happy crew, or at worst a tolerably amenable one, should be the result. Not that, once residents are installed, their moods will necessarily count for Âmuch–Âcertainly not to the distant investors, as long as the money rolls in. The Idyll Inn is rather like a Brazilian mine or a sweatshop in China that Âway.
Some afternoons and evenings the dining room will be cleared for various entertainments. Every day there’s to be a minimum of one organized activity somewhere in or outside the building, and holidays will be marked as they arise and as they represent the customs and beliefs of the residents. Here in this city, there’ll be no need for any very exotic or even multicultural celebration, but whatever does come up is well Âcovered.
Completing the circle, back near the main entrance, is the staff office, which this week, possibly every week, is busy with harried people, women, on a steep learning curve. Across from it is the Âill-Ânamed library, a Âdark-Âpanelled room with no books except a set of encyclopedias and a severely Âout-Âof-Âdate atlas, but with a Âwide-Âscreen TV and a fireplace, two large sofas and several easy Âchairs–Ârather lush, in an English Âunlettered-Âcountry-Âgentleman sort of Âway.
And that’s it. The landscaping remains to be done, but otherwise the contractors have met most of their deadlines. Incomplete landscaping doesn’t prevent the place from opening for business, although, aside from the parking lot, the property is bogged down in spring mud. Soon, however, it will be covered in sod and dotted with decorative rocks and perennial flowers and shrubs, and no doubt residents will enjoy observing this happen as spring and summer unfold. Many are probably interested in gardening, and the rest should be pleased enough to watch workers Âworking.
It’s in the interests of its distant investors that the Idyll Inn be comfortable and attractive in order to appeal to prosperous clients. At the same time, there must be responsible limits, which in practice means that the walls are painted appealing shades of pastels, and the chairs and tables are both efficient and homey, and the floors look like real tile, and the flowers and plants placed here and there out of the way are either Âfull-Âgrown and thriving or fake, and the art on the walls is unobjectionable, mostly prints of gardens, seashores and animals grazing in fields; but which also means that under the paint the drywall is not always smooth, the chair at the computer desk in the lounge is by no means ergonomically top of the line, the floor tiles are Âstick-Âdowns, and the flowers and plants camouflage a certain draftiness around some of the Âwindows.
Those doctors and dentists with their numbered company and expanding empire have no intention of being directly involved Âwith–Âof even Âvisiting–Âthis Idyll Inn or any other, so it’s fortunate that Annabel Walker exists. She grew up in this city, left at twenty, returned at fifty, and in the interim trained and worked restlessly in nursing, briefly and radically in auto repair, and finally and practically in accounting. She has already worked at a larger Idyll Inn elsewhere, although not as manager. She is unencumbered and plain, and looks fairly worn down by the world, and at this stage is likely to remain unencumbered and plain, if not necessarily worn down, and so can presumably be counted on to concentrate on running this Idyll ÂInn.
During the months of construction, she has spoken extensively and intensively with a great many people. She has cracked the whip with contractors to keep schedules nearly on track. She has interviewed and hired staff, supervised the distribution of instruction manuals and the showing of corporate videos on required procedures, and is already keeping an eye on one or two staff with a view to possible firings. She has been responsible for furnishing and stocking the place, within the limits specified by the Idyll Inn rules. All that is good business, well Âdone.
She has also, when possible, personally interviewed prospective residents. She has reviewed their histories, medical and otherwise, checked their credit, conducted tours, allocated suites, heard a great many stories. Unlike a newcomer to town, she knows there will be people at the Idyll Inn over whom she’ll particularly have to exert her authority, and here, quite possibly, comes one Ânow.
MUSTN’T START ON A SOUR ÂNOTE . . .
Not for Sylvia Lodge an ignominious arrival in the hands of others, that sure, helpless sign of having waited too long. She comes to the Idyll Inn under her own steam, not counting the taxi driver, who gets no Âtip–Âimagine honking from her driveway instead of ringing the doorbell, imagine not helping, and never mind that she doesn’t particularly need help with only a purse and a small fabric suitcase containing toiletries, Âmainly.
He can mutter, ”Cheap old bitch,“ if he chooses, but he’d do better to turn his mind to the benefits of courteous service. Another time she might set out to instruct him about who may lie behind the rangy flesh of an Âeighty-Âone-Âyear-Âold female, which in this instance happens to be a good tipper, but today she has other Âconcerns.
She is not one of those superstitious people who hesitate before pride in the nervous belief that it precedes a fall. Pride, in fact, helps hold her upright, and therefore upright she proceeds along the short walkway and through the two sets of automatically opening glass doors of the Idyll Inn entrance. There’s not much time before her moving van will arrive, her possessions in the hands of two scruffy young men she found through the classifieds. She has culled fairly ruthlessly, but there’s still a lot of life travelling behind her, and she wants to be organized for it and prepared to Âdirect.
Her new home sweet home. But mustn’t start on a sour note, or a dubious Âone.
It is Âmid-Âafternoon. She woke early this morning, melancholy as any normal human would be. Besides closely supervising the young men as they loaded her selected remaining possessions into their van, she took a last stroll around her garden, admiring particularly the hardy spring tulips and tough, graceful forsythia. Indoors she observed the light slanting through leaded windows, patterning bare hardwood floors, and ran her fingers over the naked fireplace mantel and shivered at the echoey sound of her solitary voice when she made the sentimental mistake of saying aloud, ”Goodbye then, old house.“ She cooked herself an asparagus omelette for lunch, on the theory that future omelettes would likely be of the cooling, rubbery variety, possibly not even involving real eggs.
This was the day after Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear. You remember that. It was a moment in history – not like Kennedy or the planes flying into the World Trade Centre – not up at that level. This was something much lower, more like Ben Johnson, back when his eyes were that think, yellow colour and he tested positive in Seoul aft …
A delightfully offbeat story that features an opinionated tortoise and an IQ-challenged narrator who find themselves in the middle of a life-changing mystery.
Audrey (a.k.a. Oddly) Flowers is living quietly in Oregon with Winnifred, her tortoise, when she finds out her dear father has been knocked into a coma back in Newfoundland. Despite her fear o …
The plane is a row of gold circles and a cockpit. One of those circles will carry my head halfway home. I count back fourteen. That circle. In the cockpit the pilots are having a good time. Boy are they. Coffee cups have to be put down. They are really laughing. One puts a hand on the other’s shoulder. Then the one with the hand leans over and kisses the other’s cheek. A quick impulsive happy peck.
A fellow passenger joins me at the terminal window. Hey, I tell her. Our pilots just kissed.
I’m thinking that kiss bodes well for our safety.
She pretends she has a cup to throw away.
That is my plane. With the word nap resolving on its tail. How do I feel about that acronym. Not great.
My phone rings and it’s Linda.
Winnifred isn’t moving.
Never assume a tortoise is dead. Rule Number One of Tortoise Ownership. What’s the temperature in your apartment. Remember it’s winter. It’s still dark. She ’s not nocturnal. These and other environmental factors have likely caused her to withdraw into her shell. Her heart beats maybe once an hour. Be patient. Wait an hour.
Still, I crouch down next to the window. Feel the heat coming up from the vent. Is my tortoise dead. Should I go back.
My own heart is all apatter. This is being alive. Can you feel the body worry before every beat. I can. Will this be the last. No. Will this be the last. No.
Should I go back.
I look up at the pilots who are possibly in love and I don’t want to catch any other plane but this one. This is my plane.
Yesterday I peered down into her castle and she was beside the pool making the same journey I’d seen her start two days ago. I knocked on her shell. Excuse me, Winnifred.
No legs emerged. No little ancient head.
I picked her up and held her under my armpit. This usually worked. I did have a heat lamp, but paper castles tend to be flammable.
Finally she woke up.
There, I said. I put her in the pool.
I knelt down beside the castle with windows that look out onto my kitchen. Many times I have seen Winnifred poke her head wistfully through one of those windows. Many times I have seen her drop a piece of lettuce like a note.
She climbed out of the pool and creaked over to the window.
I have to go home for a while, I said.
Winnifred is old. She might be three hundred. She came with the apartment. The previous tenant, a rock climber named Cliff, was about to embark on a rock climbing adventure that would not have been much fun for Winnifred. Back then her name was Iris. Cliff had inherited Iris from the tenant before him. Nobody knew how old Iris was or where she had come from originally. Now Cliff was moving out. He said, Would you like a tortoise.
I would not say no to a tortoise, I said.
I was alone in Portland and the trees were giant. I picked her up and she blinked at me with her upside- down eyelids. I felt instantly calm. Her eyes were soft brown. Her skin felt like an old elbow. I will build you a castle, I whispered. With a pool. And I was true to my word.
Hold her under your armpit, I tell Linda.
And I hang up.
That was rude, but I am not myself. I am unslept. I am on automatic pilot. This image brought to mind by the pilots who clearly aren’t. What does automatic pilot mean. I picture an inflatable pilot, but that is from a movie. Automatic pilot is just a computer. It is what flies the plane when the pilots take a nap or make out. It is what kicks in metaphorically when your dad is in a comma, sorry coma, and you are summoned home and you must make arrangements for your tortoise.
Last night I stepped outside carrying Winnifred in her castle and the sky was busy with stars.
Look, Win, I said. The past. Because the past is what you are looking at when you look at the stars.
Winnifred looked up.
That’s where I’m going tomorrow, I said.
We drove out to Oregon City where the streets are all named after presidents in the order they were elected, so you can’t get lost if you are American and know your presidents. Linda and Chuck live on Taft. When I pulled up, Chuck was outside smoking with his actor friends.
As I climbed the steps, one of the actor friends said, Am I hallucinating or is she carrying a castle.
Yes, a castle.
Four people at my gate are knitting. Knitting needles are allowed on planes again. At security there was a new and definitive list of Objects You Cannot Take in Your Carrion Carry- on Luggage. All the usual weapons from the game of Clue were there, minus knitting needles, and with the addition of snow globes.
I patted my pockets and said, Where’s that snow globe.
The security woman in blue pinched the bridge of her nose like I was causing her pain right there.
Move on, please.
In the little kiosk inside security there were knitting needles and wool for sale. Christmas colours. So knitting is enjoying a revival.
I limped on to my gate.
Earlier, in the apartment, I had tripped over my carry- on bag in the dark. I had lain in the dark and thought, I won’t go, I’ve been hurt. I lay there and looked up at the sloped ceiling, still bumpy with Cliff ’s climbing holds. Cliff liked to refer to the ceiling as an overhang.
I had sent him an email saying, My dad is in a comma and waiting for me to open his eyes. Must depart. Apartment available for your use. Tortoise with Linda and Chuck.
I sent him a second email: I meant coma.
I lay on the floor. My cab with its little Napoleon hat was puffing in the street.
Get up. Go.
When the right person arrives at the bedside of the comatose person, the comatose person opens his eyes. Everyone knows this. This is Rule Number One of Comatoseness.
Yesterday Uncle Thoby called and said, Oddly. There’s been an accident.
Which word made me sit down on the kitchen floor. Accident, I said.
Your dad received a severe blow to the medulla oblongata as he was walking home. From, this is unbelievable, a Christmas tree. Hanging sideways out of a pickup truck.
Uncle Thoby’s voice was okay until he got to pickup truck. Then it broke down. I didn’t understand. Hit by a Christmas tree. Or walking home from a Christmas tree. Or what.
Hit by. On his way home.
I thought about this. Finally I said, I have a question. Are you ready.
Here it is. I’ve got it. What is a medulla oblongata.
A brain stem.
Oh. Right. So a Christmas tree stem had collided with my dad’s brain stem. And now he was in a coma. I put my hand on the back of my neck. I had forgotten that the brain has geography. The human brain is 1,400 cubic centimetres of geography. Our heads fit inside airplane windows for Chrissakes. We are small and we can be pitched out of our geography.
I’ll come home, I said.
This eagerly awaited new novel from Trevor Cole combines the humour and sharp observations of contemporary life that he is known for with an irresistibly twisted premise, for fans of the quirkily macabre Six Feet Under and Dexter, and readers of Paul Quarrington, Miriam Toews, Jonathan Franzen, and, of course, Trevor Cole.
In his first two, GG-short …
The sun was shining on the whole of Kotemee. Spangles trembled on the lake, shafts of gleam stabbed off the chrome of cars lining Main Street, and in Corkin Park the members of the Star-Lookout Lions, Kotemee’s Pee Wee League team, swung aluminum bats that scalded their tender, eleven-year-old hands. But for Jean Vale Horemarsh, there was no light in her life but the light of her fridge, and it showed her things she did not want to see.
A jar of strawberry jam, empty but for the grouting of candied berry at the bottom. A half tub of sour cream, its contents upholstered in a thick aquamarine mould. A pasta sauce and a soup, stalking fermentation in their plastic containers. A crumpled paper bag of wizened, weightless mushrooms. The jellified remains of cucumber and the pockmarked corpses of zucchini and bell pepper in the bottom crisper drawer.
In the kitchen of her sun-warmed house on Edgeworth Street, Jean bent to the task of removing each of these abominations. The jam jar was tossed into the recycling bin. The putrid liquids were dumped into the sink. The zucchini, cucumber, and mushrooms became compost. The mould-stiffened sour cream would not budge from its tub, so Jean scooped it out with her hand. Anything suspect – a bit of improperly wrapped steak, a bottle of cloudy dressing – was presumed tainted and excised without mercy from the innards of the fridge. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and Jean still wore the black jacquard dress she’d worn to her mother’s funeral. She had not found the will to take it off, although she had undone several of the buttons. So as she worked, erasing the evidence of time, destroying all signs of decay, her dress hung open slightly, exposing the skin of her back to the refrigerated air.
Watching her from a corner of the kitchen, Milt, Jean’s husband, confessed that he should have cleaned out the fridge weeks ago, while Jean was still at her mother’s. But it was a revolting chore, he said, and he kept putting it off; he didn’t know how she did it.
“I have a strong stomach,” said Jean.
It had been three full months since Jean and Milt had lived together. Marjorie had made it clear that in dying she required Jean’s full attention, which left Milt to mind himself at home. Now, as Jean bowed and stared into the cool, white recess, he came up behind her. He reached over her for a jar of peanut butter and, with only a slight hesitation, touched his fingers to the unbuttoned region of his wife’s back and began to draw them lightly downward.
“What a terrible, terrible idea,” she said.
“Sorry.” He retreated with the peanut butter and screwed open the lid. “I just thought, we haven’t . . . I think it was snowing the last time. But you’re right, bad timing.” He set the jar and lid on the counter and reached for a bag of bread. “If you’re hungry, I could make you some toast.”
Jean straightened at the fridge, summoned tolerance and forgiveness, and gave her husband a sad, sheepish look. She folded her arms around him and set her chin on his shoulder. It was more a lean than a hug. “Poor Milty,” she said. “Poor, poor Milty.”
“Milty’s all right.”
“You can squeeze my breast if you want.”
“Nothing’s going to happen because of it. But you can do it if you like and then disappear into the bathroom or something.”
“Well, I don’t think that’s necessary.”
“Suit yourself.” She began to separate from him and before she did, he slipped a hand in and latched onto her left one, just holding it for a moment as she waited. “There,” she said finally, and patted his cheek as she left him.
“I could take it out right here,” he said from the kitchen.
He headed past her, toward the powder room in the hall. “It’s not like I haven’t.”
A few minutes later, slumped on the matching green velour living room chairs in a room invaded by the late-afternoon sun, they stared at Winter Leaves, which Milt had set on the coffee table in honour of Jean’s return. A clutch of hydrangea leaves ruined by frost it was meant to be.
“That looks nice there,” said Jean. “Thank you.”
“Thought you might like it.”
She pushed herself out of the soft cushions and leaned forward, squinting. “Is that a crack?”
“Just a small one. I glued it.”
“There’s another one.”
“Only two, though. Don’t keep looking.”
With a sigh Jean slumped back in her chair. “It is impossible for anything beautiful to last.”
“But you made something beautiful. That’s the point.”
Jean stared at Milt. “That is the point, isn’t it?”
She nodded and let her chin rest on her chest. Never had she been so exhausted, and yet so relieved. The exhaustion and relief seeped through her muscles and bones, a bad and good feeling all at once. This must be the way athletes feel, Jean thought, after they’ve run a thousand miles and won the game. She let the sensation slip through her like one of those drugs that young people take and allowed her mind to drift backward to the funeral at First United Presbyterian. Everyone had been there: Jean’s brothers, handsome so-and-so’s in their dress uniforms; Andrew Jr.’s silent wife, Celeste, and their two grown children, Ross and Marlee, sparing four precious hours away from their busy young lives, thank you so much for your sacrifice; her own good friends, most of them anyway, full of sympathy and support; and a hundred Kotemee folk who’d known Marjorie Horemarsh as the best veterinarian they’d ever brought a sick spaniel to, and not as a mother who’d praised only marks and commendations and money and prizes and never beauty . . . never, ever beauty for its own sake, and not as a patient who moaned in pain seventeen hours a day and smelled like throw-up and needed to be bathed and fed and have her putrid bedsores swabbed and dressed . . .
“It was nice to see your friends there,” said Milt. “Louise looked good, I thought. Or –”
“Louise looked good, did she?”
“Well. So did Dorothy. We should have them all over some day.”
Jean stared at the ceiling and sighed. “What’s the point, Milt?”
“The house has been pretty quiet. You could play bridge, like you used to.”
“No, Milt, I’m not talking about that. I’m saying what’s the point of anything?”
“Oh.” Milt tossed his head back against the chair cushion as if to say, Wow, that’s a big one.
“Exactly,” said Jean. “You know, you think about a lot of things when you’re taking care of your dying mother.”
Milt leaned forward in his chair. “Do you want a drink?” He rose and steadied himself. His tie was askew, and the end of it rested against the mound of his belly, a little like a dying leaf against a pumpkin, Jean considered.
“I will have some white wine.” She lifted her voice to talk as Milt made his way to the kitchen. “You think about things, Milt,” she said. “You ask yourself questions.”
“What sort of questions? No white, I’m afraid. Red?”
“Fine. Big questions, like, what’s the point of anything?”
“You live, and then you die, Milt. And whatever you had is gone and it doesn’t matter any more. Nothing matters for ever and ever.”
“Wow,” said Milt on his way back with the glasses.
“So what is the point?”
He handed her the wine. “You want me to answer that?”
“I don’t think you can answer that. I don’t think anyone can.”
“I think the point is to live the best life possible, for as long as you’re able.”
Jean, still sunk into the cushions and drugged with exhaustion, sipped her wine and picked at the threads of ideas and formulations and fantasies that had occupied her mind for the last couple of months, while she’d fed her mother unsweetened Pablum, while she’d stared at her thick, unweeded garden, while she’d kneeled alone in the en suite bathroom, cleaning the dried spray of urine from the floor where her mother had slipped.
“Beauty is the point, I think.”
“There you go. You answered it yourself.”
“A moment of beauty, or joy, something exquisite and pure.” She made a face. “I hate this red wine. Did you open it a week ago?”
“I’m not drinking it.” She set it on the coffee table. “That’s it for bad wine.”
“Did you want me to drive and get some white?”
“Yes, but not now. Not while we’re talking.” For a while she stared at the coffee table, at the wine yawing in the glass, at Winter Leaves, without really seeing any of them. “More than once, Milt,” she said. “More than once, when I was feeding Mom in bed? And she would lay her head back and fall asleep? I thought about pinching her nose and her lips closed and just holding them like that. Holding them tight.”
“Until she died?”
“Until she died.”
“Wow,” said Milt. His eyes went wide as he shook his head. He looked, Jean thought, as though he were really taking it in.
“Because what is the difference?” She shifted to the edge of the cushion. “Whether you die now or die later, it’s the same thing, but one way has less suffering. They do it for animals. My own mother did it. I watched it happen.” Even now her mind filled with bright images, sudden whites and reds. In the very early days of her mother’s career, when she’d had few clients and couldn’t justify the cost of a clinic, Marjorie had used their kitchen table, spread with sheets of white plastic, to perform operations. She had allowed little Jean, who was the oldest of her children, to observe – this was real life, she said, no need to hide it – as she sliced open neighbourhood cats and dogs to pluck out their ovaries or spleens, or to reattach bloody tendons. Many times before she was seven Jean had watched her mother stick a hypodermic into the fur of some aged or diseased animal, watched her press the plunger and wait out the quiet seconds until its eyes closed. That was the simplest act of all, and the kindest, it now seemed to Jean.
“It’s called ‘mercy,’ Milt. That’s what it’s called. Don’t let a living thing suffer. I should have done it. I hate myself for not doing it.”
“Don’t hate yourself, Jean.”
Jean stared at Winter Leaves and lost herself in a scene that had come to her several times before, projected like a movie against the backs of her eyelids while she slumped in the chair in Marjorie’s darkened room, listening to her mother breathe. She saw her hand reaching down – in her imagination it was always morning, daylight filled the room, and everything was a pale pink – and squeezing her mother’s soft nostrils between thumb and forefinger, the way you might seal the mouth of an inflated balloon. With the other hand she held her lips closed, too. Then the image changed, and she was pressing down on her mother’s mouth; yes, that would work better. Squeezing her nostrils, and clamping down hard on her mouth. It wouldn’t have been difficult; her mother was weak, and Jean’s hands were muscled tools from years of working with clay. Marjorie’s eyes would open, she’d be terrified, staring up at her daughter, fighting for her life, not realizing Jean’s way was so much better. But it would only last a moment, that struggle, unlike the pain of her lingering disease. And afterward there’d be no recriminations, no feelings of betrayal, no abiding resentments. There’d be nothing, because that’s what death was.
“I should have killed my mother, Milt.” Jean felt the tears puddling in her eyes. “I should have killed her before she got so sick. Then she wouldn’t have had to suffer at all.”
He came to her and put his hand on her knee. “You were a good daughter to her, Jean. You took care of her.”
“Not like I should have.”
She reached into her sleeve for the tissue she’d tucked there and used it to dry her eyes. Though it was painful to believe that she had failed her mother by not taking her life, her conviction in that belief was, in an odd way, comforting. Certainty energized her. She took a deep breath and looked into Milt’s sad, grey eyes. Such a sweet man.
“If you wanted to screw me,” she said to Milt, “I’d be game.”
Milt looked down at his hand on her knee, and off to the powder room. “I don’t think I can now.”
She sighed. “That’s annoying.”
“I can try.”
“No, never mind.” She patted his hand. “I’d be just as happy with some white wine.”