After you've lost it all — job, house, savings, future —what have you got left? A piercing new novel of our times by one of Canada's finest fiction writers.
On a chilly early morning in late spring, Joe Beaudry and his wife, Laurie, wake up in circumstances that would challenge saints: they are on the lam in a stolen motorhome on the edge of a Walmart parking lot in Regina, Saskatchewan. They've gone bust, spectacularly: lost the house that was Joe's gift from his dad, lost the business Joe started when he got married, and stuck his ancient father in a nursing home in Winnipeg so they could flee their creditors. Joe knows the reality of the situation, and is trying to raise enough cash to get them both to Fort McMurray where he hopes he can find work. But Laurie, even though she watched Joe trash their high-end appliances with a sledgehammer when the yard sale didn't deliver enough cash, somehow thinks it's only temporary, and maxes out their last credit card on wardrobe and hair dye and wishes and dreams. For Joe, it's the last straw in a marriage that once seemed star-crossed and now seems simply unworkable.
Pushed to figure out what to do next, Joe simply takes off hitchhiking, leaving Laurie waiting for Joe, and Joe wondering how he will ever find meaning in a world that has disappointed his every expectation. The road for both of them provides surprising answers...
About the author
Sandra Birdsell is an award-winning writer, the author of The Two-Headed Calf (shortlisted for the 1997 Governor General's Award), Night Travellers, Ladies of the House, The Missing Child and The Chrome Suite.Among other awards, she has won the WH Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Gerald Lampert Award for New Fiction. The Town That Floated Away is her first children's book.She lives in Regina, Saskatchewan, but grew up in Morris, Manitoba -- a town that truly did, one day, float away.
- Short-listed, Governor General's Literary Awards - Fiction
Excerpt: Waiting for Joe (by (author) Sandra Birdsell)
It is early morning when Joe Beaudry awakens to a droning sound, the ceiling fan, he thinks. His father has left it going again in his room at the back of the house. But when Joe opens his eyes, the greenish light is seeping in around the edges of the blind and he remembers that he and Laurie are parked on the Walmart lot in Regina. The cold is like a hovering presence above the bed, alert and waiting for his next move.
“What time is it?” Laurie asks, and she feels the sudden tension in Joe, his surprise that she’s awake too. She sees his arm rise and the glow at his wrist lights the bottom of his stubbly face.
“You don’t want to know.” It’s near to three o’clock, Joe doesn’t say. When he came to bed around midnight unsettled by the red wine they’d drunk with supper, Laurie was already asleep. She lay completely still, hands folded and tucked under her chin, the rise and fall of her breathing barely perceptible. He’d often been jealous of that stillness, of whatever took her away. Soon after, he’d heard the clatter and dull rolling sounds of the skateboarders at the far end of the lot, and then the sweeper making its nightly pass of the shopping centre parking lot, beginning at Safeway and working its way toward them. He must have slept though, because the droning had awakened him, maybe a turboprop warming up at the airport.
He sits on the side of the bed for a moment thinking of Pauline. By now she’ll know he’s left. He didn’t call to say goodbye. He didn’t want to suggest there was more to them other than that she was sometimes lonely and he was in no hurry to go home. They found themselves agreeing to meet for a drink, to talk, Joe doing most of the talking once it became apparent that his RV business, the Happy Traveler, was failing. He turns to flip the blanket over Laurie to double its warmth, regretting their haste to leave Winnipeg, their lack of foresight in not thinking to look in the drawer under the bed to make sure there was adequate bedding, their not having hung on to the sleeping bags.
When Joe gets up and crosses the room Laurie smells the garlic—the pizza they had for supper. She fights the ache in her chest while she watches Joe in the closet mirrors, the glowing rectangle of the window lighting up the space around him, his buttocks tinged green as he bends to collect his clothes. How quickly he pulls on his jeans, T-shirt and hoodie. He leaves her without speaking.
Like Joe, she’d heard the sweeping crew, their shovels scraping up the debris the machine left behind. The noise receded when the work crew and machine went round the back of Walmart. She’d slept again, only to be awakened now by the muffled drone. The Meridian was supposed to be well insulated against the elements and noise, but it’s damp and chilly, and she hears what could be an airplane. Or it might be the city, two hundred thousand people breathing. Then comes the electric whirr of the Meridian steps unfolding, Joe opening the door, the woof of air compressing as it closes behind him.
She listens for his footsteps and hears none. She heaps his pillow onto her head to shut out the light, tells herself, Laurie, do not think. Do not think about Joe turning away from her yet again. She puts the thought in a jar, screws the lid down tight and imagines setting it on a shelf up near the ceiling.
Don’t think about the house, its vibrant rooms like a jewel box, the colours of mustard and the Mediterranean; the geranium-red kitchen only just renovated, the warm sheen of its cork floor. That about now she would be washing the winter dust from the upstairs veranda, preparing it for the summer months when they liked to leave the door from the bedroom open throughout the night and they would awake to the tap-tapping of the nuthatch daubing the inside of the gourd she’d hung in the ornamental crabapple tree. To the thick odour of the Assiniboine River rising in a cloud at the foot of the street, the smell like fish and rust.
She tries not to think of Joe’s father, Alfred, of going past Deere Lodge the evening before they left and seeing him at the window, outlined in that little square of yellow light in his little square room, among a myriad of lights along Portage Avenue. His liver-spotted coconut of a head framed by the window. She puts the thought of Alfred in a jar, screws down the lid, sets it up on the shelf. Within moments the pillow, warmed by her breath, is a cave of comfort she can safely fall asleep in.
Joe stands in the parking lot taking in the dazzle of frost scalloping out from the bases of the concrete parking stops and light standards, emerging on the side of a nearby garbage container, while the Meridian remains untouched. When they’d arrived in Regina three days ago, he’d parked where the manager suggested, at the front of the lot and close to its perimeter, parallel to Gibson Road. By the end of that first day a couple of employees had erected a chainlink enclosure nearby.
It’s filled now with bales of gardening supplies, bags of soil, containers of herbicides and pesticides, chemicals he sometimes gets whiffs of. The enclosure is the source of the greenish light, while above Joe, the orange glow of the sodium vapour lights obliterates the stars. He thinks of the Happy Traveler lot, how in the early years the rows of trailers and RVs were lit by a single light, until he came upon the remains of a bonfire in a thicket behind the storage Quonset and installed a security camera and two more lights. He regretted having done that when it came time to take the Meridian, which was parked inside the Quonset near the gate, the shortest distance between his need for wheels and a place to live.
He’d carried his .22 rifle in a duffle bag. Worried that it looked suspiciously light, he’d waited until the taxi merged with the glowing stream of tail lights going into the city before setting off along the road bordering the industrial park. He felt dwarfed by the security fences around the sprawling complexes, some of those lit-up yards as large as two city blocks and filled with long-distance hauling rigs and trailers. He passed by ATCO and its mountains of prefab office structures and workforce housing; a pipeline and drilling company, it was a major supplier to the oil patch and several Arab states. Then the newest complex, the company making Portakabins, the trailers that were used by the military at the Canadian base at Doha during Desert Storm and now in Afghanistan.
When he reached the most northerly section of the park he turned onto the dirt service road and then veered into the ditch, cursing as he plunged through a film of ice and his tassel loafers filled with frigid water. The bank was slippery underfoot and he grabbed at dried weeds to haul himself up the slope. The barbed wire fence bordering the field behind his yard was alive with shredded plastic bags, like tethered dogs leaping and snapping at his face when he stepped down on the bottom strand and swung the duffle bag through the space onto the frozen ground. Then he ducked between the wires and carried the bag toward a clump of bushes whose crown was clotted with more plastic that rippled in the wind. He was still in the business suit he’d put on in the morning for his meeting with the loans manager of the credit union, hardly dressed for the bite of spring on the northwesterly edge of Winnipeg.
There was a hollowed-out space inside the bushes where branches were broken off, and the ground was lined with cardboard. He dropped to his knees and slid the bag inside, thinking that someone had called the bushes home. Could be the man in the oil-stained parka, whom Joe had caught picking through the garbage at Pauline’s restaurant. He’d swung round at Joe as though he expected to be chased off and was prepared to object. The skin on his hands looked smoked and thick, his feral eyes like a windstorm. That man in the thicket, watching Joe shut down in increments, his four employees gone, one after the other. By the time winter arrived, only Joe going about the yard, the air hazed with snow sifting off the motorhomes and trailers, the roofs growing higher each day with perfectly shaped domes of snow that he’d had to punch through before he could clear them off.
The cold penetrated through the cardboard where he sat in the hollowed-out bushes, his knees drawn up, trench coat pulled tightly around him, hands shoved into its sleeves for warmth while he waited for the lights in Pauline’s to go out. For Pauline to lock up her diner, get into her van and drive off to her acreage in the south end of the city where she kept horses. He didn’t want Pauline to have to lie, to say she wasn’t aware of anything unusual happening next door, even though she’d made it clear that he was welcome to store whatever he wanted in the shed at the back of her property. She wouldn’t talk, he knew, although people were talking, the men in the diner going quiet whenever he came in, the bank clerks avoiding eye contact with him.
The Winchester .22 that Joe cradled against his chest was his father’s gift to him on his sixteenth birthday, but like most of what Alfred had given him, he’d seldom had a use for it. This morning when Joe got up, Alfred had been awake, sitting at the kitchen table over a mug of tea. He’d been unable to sleep through the night, he’d said, and Joe heard it as an accusation, that it was his fault Alfred had been up and knocking about his bedroom at the end of the hall. His father knew something was in the air and Joe knew he would soon need to tell him about the arrangements he’d made for him to take up residence at Deere Lodge.
Pauline’s van started up and backed off the diner lot, its headlights sweeping across the bushes as she passed by. When she reached the gravel road she turned and sped away. She had gone bankrupt twice, it was not a big deal, she told him, her cigarette rising in an arc above the bed. The first time, her husband had left her with three small kids and a pile of debts, the second was a business venture, the Chocolate Shop, a downtown café that offered tarot readings, tea and chocolates. There are ways around it, she said. Both times her credit was restored within a few years.
“I don’t know,” Joe said, staring into the chasm of air that had opened up inside him. He was alone now. Alone as anyone could be who had once believed that nothing happened to him without it being part of the grand design.
Within weeks, perhaps a month, people would come to take an inventory of his business and he didn’t want there to be any video evidence of him driving away in the Meridian. It was the last of the high-end Class C motorhomes he’d sold, to a farmer who’d used it once and had been storing it with him ever since. Even after the several eviction notices he’d received, Joe had been electrified the morning he came to work and saw the notice posted on the door and discovered that all the locks on the main building had been changed. But not the lock on the yard gate, however, and he knew immediately how to make use of that oversight. He shouldered the rifle and sighted the security camera at the corner of the building under the eaves. The thin sharp crack, the sound of the camera shattering were covered by the rising swirl of wind and the roar of shredded plastic lashing out from the fence and in the air above his head. Three lights, three more cracks, and the Happy Traveler yard fell into darkness.
“I don’t know,” Joe says now as he paces along the perimeter of the Walmart parking lot, gazing at the bungalows across Albert Street. All the windows of the houses are dark, except the glow of one front-door fanlight. He imagines the light is left burning for a kid. Just as the light was always left on for him. He wants to call home and reaches for his cell, knowing there’s nowhere for him to call. He turns away from the thought only to be confronted by the gleaming hulk of the Meridian.
He could call Alfred. Not even the threat of a sensor pad being installed on his bed has stopped his father’s nightly wandering at Deere Lodge. But it is too late. His scalp throbs with his rising pulse as he enters a number. When Maryanne Lewis answers he can only say, “It’s me. Joe.”
“Oh, I had a feeling it was you. You’ve been on my mind for days. I said to Ken, ‘We’re going to hear from Joe.’”
Joe leans into Maryanne’s familiar voice, wants to sink into it.
“I’ve been meaning to get in touch with you for ages,” he says. It’s his way of acknowledging that he’s not replied to their many telephone and email messages; the years of silence passing between them.
“It’s Joe,” she calls out, and Joe hears a phone being picked up.
“Joe,” Pastor Ken exclaims. “How’s it going, little brother?”
Joe listens for disappointment or regret and fails to detect either. “What time is it there?” he asks. They sound as though they’ve been asleep, and he realizes that even with the time difference, it’s past midnight in Vancouver.
“Listen, Joe, any time you want to call is the right time,” Pastor Ken says.
“I’ve lost my business.” Joe gets it out there before he can’t. I’ve lost the house, my father.
Lost, as though the Happy Traveler, his home, his dad, wandered off and he’s been unable to find them.
“Joe. Oh, no,” Maryanne says.
“How?” Pastor Ken jumps in to ask.
“It’s been coming for a while now. Last year business was really bad, but ever since 9/11, things haven’t been great.”
“People stopped travelling then,” Pastor Ken says.
“Yes.” Joe does not say that although he’d incorporated, when the business began to falter he’d taken out a mortgage on the house. The small property Laurie had inherited from her grandmother, along with a time-share in a townhouse in Tofino, had gone as collateral against his line of credit.
He does not say he’d driven past the entrance to the industrial park on some mornings to head out along the highway, his eyes following the zinging arc of the frostsilvered hydro wires as they dipped down and up from poles, driving out a bit farther each time. Sometimes he would pull over and sit for a moment before heading back, watch for the doe and her yearling to emerge from the scrub bush near the city dump.
“I got behind on things. Behind a year on the lease of the shop. And then the bank foreclosed on the house.”
He receives their immediate outpouring of condolences, as waves swell and threaten to crash over his head. Those two lifeguards. They had rescued him at a time when he’d most needed someone to be there.
He takes a deep breath to calm his voice. “You should see the area now, you wouldn’t recognize it. They call it the Juba Industrial Park.”
When he’d first opened the Happy Traveler, it had been the largest of the single proprietorship businesses in the area, the brake and carburetor shops, sandblasting and paint garages. Then the land was sold and developed and most of those enterprises moved, or shut down. Spur rail lines bringing in tons of crushed vehicles, scrap metal being turned into gold—he couldn’t understand, get a handle on how any of this worked. But he’d stayed and incorporated. Expanded. Went into boats and ATVs, RV storage and repairs.
“You know what, Joe? It’s like you’ve lost a child,” Maryanne says. “A man’s business is like that to him. It’s his child. You’re grieving.”
The yellow light shining in the fan of the front door of the house becomes a blur, and Joe turns away, shivering now with the dampness and cold emanating from the asphalt.
“Where are you?” Pastor Ken asks and when Joe tells him, he says, “So are you heading this way, then? We’d sure love to see you, guy. It’s been far too long.”
“Well no, I wasn’t planning to. I’ve got a job right now at Canadian Tire. For a few days, anyway. Until me and another guy finish putting together the garden centre. I should have enough cash by then to get to Fort McMurray. You remember Steve? He’s living there now. I’m hoping he’ll have some leads on work.”
“Steve Greyeyes,” Maryanne says. “Of course we remember him.”
“I need to find a job, and fast,” Joe says, thinking of the promise he made to his father—the move to Deere Lodge is only temporary. This is the lie he also tells himself—that no matter where he is he’ll return to Winnipeg and set the record straight. When he has the means he’ll make whatever arrangements are necessary to move Alfred in with them, wherever that may be.
“Is that what you want to do, Joe? Go to Fort McMurray?” Pastor Ken asks.
“It’ll do for now,” Joe says and gives a ragged laugh.
“Remember, Joe, you’re God’s kid. He wants only the best for you,” Maryanne says, echoed by Pastor Ken’s “Amen to that.”
“Can we pray for you, Joe? Ken and I have been thinking about you so often lately. Now we know why.”
“I haven’t got much time left on this phone,” Joe says quickly, thinking they mean to begin praying now.
Maryanne laughs. “It’s okay, Joe. You don’t need to be in on this. God is, and that’s what counts.”
“Promise you’ll keep in touch,” Pastor Ken adds. “And if there’s anything we can do, all you have to do is ask, little buddy. Anything at all.”
“Thanks,” Joe says. Although he wants to hold onto their voices for a while longer, he needs the time he’s got left on the cell to stay connected to Alfred. He hangs up without saying goodbye.
He turns toward the motorhome and sees his own footprints in the sheen of frost. He can smell it, like wet sawdust and must. Like the odour of the tin-sided garage whose earth floor hadn’t been exposed to sunlight for years. The scent sometimes clung to his mother’s sweater when she’d been out there cleaning storm windows, or refinishing a piece of furniture. It is a time he can scarcely recall, although he’d lived all his life in his parents’ house on Arlington Street.
Once inside, he undresses quickly, knowing from Laurie’s stillness that she’s asleep. He climbs into bed, careful not to wake her. There’s a sudden sharp snapping, the skin of the Meridian contracting in the dropping temperature. He closes his eyes, remembering how the walls in the empty showroom would snap during winter, startling him so that he would sometimes go and see if someone had come in without him knowing. He recalls then, how in late afternoon the sunlight retreated from the land out back, the wind-sculpted snowdrifts looking like waves on a sea. That’s when the doe and her yearling would emerge from the scrub bush, like faint beige brush strokes as they minced along the deep ruts worn through heavy snow and down into the ditch beside the road where they would be sheltered from the wind. Minus thirty without the wind chill, while inside the Happy Traveler the heaters hummed and surged.
When Joe comes down the steps of the Meridian the next morning on his way to Canadian Tire, the traffic on Albert Street is already heavy, a steady one-way flow toward the city centre. Although the sky is overcast, he squints against the brightness of daylight, shivers as he tugs the cords on his hoodie to draw it snug against his neck. He goes round the front of the Meridian, its broad windshield running with moisture, and then down along its side, startling several gulls into flight. He inspects the motorhome for deflated tires, scratches, the chalky spatter of bird feces. Should there be any damage he has no recourse, and so he practises vigilance, hoping it is enough to ward off an attack.
He looks up to see if the pot of greenery has appeared on the third-floor balcony of an apartment building across Gibson Road. Last night when he went to pick up the pizza, the plant was gone. Whoever puts it out in the morning gets up early. A woman, he thinks. Hell of a struggle, given that it’s the size of a small tree. Maybe she came out onto the balcony in a terry robe. He thinks of Laurie sprawled across the bed, her breasts a surprise of white in contrast to the deep tan of her body; the welcome in Maryanne Lewis’s voice.
Here and there cars are parked on the lot, belonging to employees, he guesses, and beyond Walmart at the entrance of Sunrise Mall, he sees the blocky figure—mall security—standing just inside the doors waiting to check the employees through as they arrive. The windows of Walmart and the shopping mall are like mirrors and conceal what he imagines goes on before opening, the quiet scurry of employees rearranging the merchandise to create the impression that every day is the first day of business, as others keep their eyes fixed on computer screens placing orders and checking inventory.
He runs his hand along the side of the Meridian as though it’s a horse, thinking that he’d like to be able to say he left it in the same condition as when he stole it. Except, of course, for the mileage. He squats and peers into the wheel well, reassures himself that he has some time before the receiver takes an inventory of his defunct business and discovers that the Meridian is gone. When he hears Laurie moving about in the motorhome he rises from his squat.
He crosses the short distance between the parking lot and the sidewalk beyond it, and then Gibson Road, empty of traffic at this time of day. The lights flash amber in all directions, as they will until the shopping mall opens in an hour, and again in the evening after it closes.
Several blocks beyond the traffic lights, Gibson Road comes to an end in country where the Trans-Canada Highway curves west past the airport and rises through a gentle ridge of smoke-blue hills. After they fled Winnipeg, Joe at first stayed clear of the highway. He took a longer route through a winding valley, under a sky that looked heavy and threatened rain. But when the fuel gauge hit the halfway mark and began sinking rapidly, he joined up with the Trans-Canada, where he was more likely to find diesel.
He reaches the parking lot at Boston Pizza, thinking that the air smells like high altitude, like the mountains, clean and thin. Are you heading this way? If he left now he could be in the Rockies within a day and a half.
“Joe,” Laurie calls, and he turns to see her, her robe a flash of purple satin as she tiptoes alongside the motorhome and over to the sidewalk where she stops, crimps the robe closed at her neck and holds out a paper bag. His lunch, the sandwiches she made last night. One loaf of bread: $2.35, Ham: $3.49, she entered in the notebook she had bought at Walmart the day they arrived. Walnut Crest, $11.95, Laurie jotted in the notebook, giving herself a pat on the back for not having bought a more expensive Australian shiraz.
As he retraces his steps he sees that her lips are stained with the wine she drank while watching 24 last night, the kachunk kachunk soundtrack accentuating the quickness of their pulses. Joe sat at the dinette, the remains of the pizza and bottle of wine on the table before him. Laurie curled up on the lounger, rising now and again to top up her glass, the scent of Wish, her perfume, lingering. She came across it years ago in a duty-free. She likes the bottle, a heavy piece of glass shaped like a diamond. Wish, a state of desire. A wish for something more, for a happy ending.
He takes the bag from Laurie without speaking or meeting her eyes, but he notices that she’s come after him without stopping to put on shoes and that her toes are scrunched up against the cold.
“You’re going to freeze, you’d better get inside,” he says, without the usual undertow of anger.
“Should I come down and meet you later?” Her green eyes roam across Joe’s face in a fruitless search for warmth.
“Do whatever you want,” he says.
He sees her lips come together and stretch across her face in a prelude to crying. He suddenly wants her heat. His need to move beyond the ache in his body causes him to reach out and haul her in against himself, wrapping his arms around her.
“Joe,” she says, caught by surprise, then she slumps into him, her knees giving way in relief.
He scoops her up into his arms and as he carries her to the door of the Meridian, sunlight breaks through the wind-driven stratus clouds. The wet parking lot shines, gulls call out as they wheel across the clearing sky. The apartment blocks along Gibson Road look as though they’ve just been freshly coloured in with white chalk.
Laurie sees a woman standing at a balcony railing, her long beige tunic and dark head covering blowing sideways in a brief tide of wind. Joe sets her down at the foot of the steps and moves his hands to her buttocks, urges her to hurry up and get inside.
They fall together on the bed. The long spell of silence between them has made them hungry for each other. Just so much has happened to them, and in such a short time. It’s as though a pyramid has come crumbling down around them and they’re buried, hardly breathing, and unable to think how they might begin to dig themselves out. Joe on top of Laurie, as he wriggles free of his jeans, and then Laurie on top of Joe, struggling to undo the buttons on his shirt, feeling the thickness of his penis against her stomach. Again they roll, Laurie beneath him now. She takes his face between her hands and says, “Hello.”
Hello, hello, Laurie thinks, as Joe moves inside her, her nose turning red, as it always does when she cries.
Moments later they lie side by side, their bodies slick with perspiration. Laurie begins to feel the chill, like a hand sweeping across her. She turns to Joe and rests her head on his shoulder, listens to the large thump of his heart. Yes. Thick dark curls hug the nape of his tanned neck, intermingled with a mat of white wiry frizz that creeps up the back and sides of it. Sometimes when he was between haircuts she had shaved the frizz off with his razor and scattered it across the yard, thinking the birds would gather it for their nests.
She thinks to tell him that in the mall Winners has a sign advertising for help and that she wants to apply, although she knows that he’ll object, that they aren’t going to be in Regina longer than several more days. And what does she know about retail sales? Nothing. But she believes that a life spent being a consumer is qualification enough. There are also signs posted for waiters and kitchen help at Kelsey’s and Montana’s, and for part-time ticket sellers at the Galaxy Theatre.
She needs to find ways to spend the day, other than going from store to store in the mall, passing time in the food court nibbling on biscotti and sipping burnt coffee, imagining the lives of the people congregating at the tables as though they’re one large gregarious family. She watches the security men, most of them oversized and red-faced, their bodies thick as greasy sausages stuffed into their navy polyester uniforms. They lounge about the security office door, or stroll through the food court ogling the half-dressed schoolgirls shoplifting at the Dollardrama. She silently vows not to spend a nickel more than what’s necessary.
Joe sighs so deeply Laurie feels the shudder in the mattress. When she went to meet him last night at Canadian Tire, she didn’t recognize him for a moment. He was still the same, tall, yes, lean and well-muscled, but his arms hung at his sides while he listened to the man talk. Pete, a Métis, Joe had said, who never shut up. What made Joe stand out among others were his eyes, as brilliant a blue as she’d ever seen. With the light in his eyes gone, he looked ordinary.
Joe lies on his back, head propped in his arms. He’ll need to call Steve soon. Let him know that they are headed his way, and why. Men older than Joe have been hired on in the tar sands. He’s heard the stories, seen the news, the Newfies, fishermen, packing up and driving thousands of miles, six beefy guys crammed into a Honda Civic, their gear strapped on top. Kids and wife bawling on the doorstep. We’re just going to have to learn to do without him. He’ll come back with enough money to see us through for years. A young single man vowed not to return until he chalked up a million. Six guys living in a one-bedroom apartment in Fort McMurray, taking turns cooking and sleeping in the bed. He bets those fishermen don’t have any more qualifications than he does. He has some welding. He and several of his buddies once restored an old Chevy from the frame up and he took a welding course at Red River College to do it. It might be enough to get him hired. What he’ll make at Canadian Tire added to the credit remaining on their one card will pay for the fuel, with enough left over to see them through to a first paycheque. All he wants from Steve are his contacts, nothing more.
A vehicle drives past the motorhome and stops nearby. Its doors open, and then slam shut. The murmur of voices seems dreamlike and far away. What I would like to do, a woman says, but the remainder of her words are lost. A man laughs in response, which brings Laurie to the surface. She recognizes the high-pitched cackle of the white-haired greeter at Walmart, a man who looks to be in his late sixties.
“Welcome to Walmart,” she says. “I think that’s the man who greets people at the door. He looks like he’s past retirement age.” Though he’s elastic in the way he can dip sideways, bend backwards to try and peer into her tote bag.
“He likely is. They’ll hire anyone,” Joe says.
She wants to tell him that she was awakened by the cellphone this morning. Maryanne Lewis, her voice as sugary and bright as a jar of jelly beans. How was Laurie doing? Fine. How’s Joe this morning? When he called us last night he sounded pretty down. Ken and I just know that something good is going to happen for Joe. Will you tell him to get in touch? I’ll tell him, Laurie promised, but when she saw Joe had left the sandwiches on the dinette she went tearing after him and forgot to relay the message. Something good is going to happen for Joe. Which means either he’ll find a million dollars lying in the gutter, or he’ll find twenty-five cents. Or he will find nothing. That too could mean something good has happened.
Joe becomes aware of the heavy scent of Laurie’s hair. When she met him at work last night, she looked different, her usual strawberry blonde hair was the colour of a new penny. Her hand lies across his chest and the sight of the moisturized sheen of her tanned skin, the perfect white crescents of her French polish are an irritation itching at the base of his skull. Throughout the past winter, these early months of spring, while he’s been locked in his racing thoughts, she’s been able to think of things other than the end of life as they’ve known it. He pushes away from her, up and off the bed, and goes into the bathroom.
Laurie hears water running, Joe scooping it up from the sink and splashing it into his face, his underarms, his scrotum. They are not to use any more water than necessary, no showers. As if she wants to, given there’s no hot water. She had to use the microwave to heat water to rinse away the hair colour, the shampoo.
Don’t think, she tells herself.
Don’t think about Joe setting the big screen television down against the garage wall and ramming into it with the Explorer. Smashing with the sledgehammer the things that failed to sell on eBay, or in the Bargain Hunter. He would rather smash them than let her put them in the garage sale where they’d sell for such a small fraction of what he’d paid for them. There’s my profit, Joe said, only a small fraction of what he was thinking, she knows. What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? She’d seen that line of scripture highlighted in his Holy Horoscope, her name for the book of daily meditations he used to keep on the bedside table, its pages loose and its cover gone soft like a chamois.
He gestured to the appliances on the parking pad, the Cuisinart Power Prep and her Chi Vitalizer machine, the Bose sound system she’d just bought for the kitchen, the espresso maker and crushed ice drink maker she’d hunted down and found on sale at Home Outfitters, the small appliances lined up there on the parking pad, shining and wet from a light rain, looking as though they’d just been taken from their boxes.
She’d gone into the basement and covered her ears to shut out the noise as Joe smashed the appliances to smithereens. She sat on the floor, back against the stone wall, consumed by guilt and not knowing why. Joe could have waited until night, but the smashing would have brought lights on in the neighbourhood, the houses on either side of them being so close that sometimes they’d hear quarrels, music played too loudly, a hoarse cry in the night. In those final weeks she’d hardly seen anyone though. It was like they knew the Happy Traveler was no longer in business and were avoiding them, fearing that what they were going through might be contagious. But of course, the neighbourhood came out in droves to their garage sale, cockroaches swarming over the leftovers of a feast. We’re moving to the new Waverly subdivision to be closer to the business, Laurie had thought to say should anyone ask, but no one did.
Joe enters the bedroom, his nakedness shielded by the wastebasket. “I sure as hell hope this isn’t what it looks like,” he says, the words compacted between his teeth.
She realizes her mistake. The price tags and sales slips should have been tucked down into the garbage out of sight. Through the years she’d learned to bury them beneath vegetable peelings in the can under the kitchen sink. When rushed she’d sometimes stuck them into potted plants, or under the mattress in a hotel room.
He upends the wastebasket and a shower of garbage drops onto the bed, the tags, the tiny plastic envelopes containing spare buttons and loops of thread, the flattened packaging from the skin care products and cosmetics, the crumple of tissue that had been wrapped around the purple robe. The gloves she wore while colouring her hair are stuck together, the latex mass smeared with what looks like dried blood. They give off an acrid odour that quickly permeates the air between them. She winces as he flings the wastebasket aside and plucks up several of the tags.
“Did you record these in the notebook too?”
His voice is unbearably caustic. Only moments earlier she’d embraced the full weight of him, borne his collapse. She still holds his semen. She wants to point out that she coloured her hair herself instead of going to a salon, but remains silent. “I’ll need to look half decent when I start job hunting,” she finally says.
“Job hunting in that.” He indicates the purple robe lying on the floor at the foot of the bed.
“I’ve had that for years,” she lies.
Laurie had also bought a black linen sundress printed with large green ferns. When she tried it on she imagined wearing it on a summer night. The three of them, Steve, Joe and herself, seated on a café patio overlooking a busy downtown street. Buying the dress was insurance that there would be better times ahead for her and Joe. And when she saw herself in it, she remembered, too, the way Steve used to look at her.
“Dammit, Laurie. Where’s your head? We’ve got to get to McMurray first.” He gathers his clothing from the floor, dresses quickly, snatches up the cellphone from the dinette table and is gone.
Winner – Saskatchewan Book Awards Fiction Award
“Birdsell is one of our best writers — no compromises, no hesitance, a full canvas.”
— Michael Ondaatje
“Waiting for Joe stirs us to wonder who is waiting for us to change, move on or come home to a spiritual rest. Though close to the world of Flannery O’Connor, it is in its own special universe, the Birdsell landscape of the human heart.”
— Winnipeg Free Press
“Powerful and compassionate.”
— Central Plains Herald Leader
“Sandra Birdsell explores human beings with intelligence, sensitivity and wit. And there’s a wonderful clarity to her stories that fixes them in the mind and makes the imagination return to them.”
— Calgary Herald
“In fiction what I long for is a sense of the stories being alive — all hot, rude, contrary, funny, unbearable. You don’t get that nearly often enough, but in Sandra Birdsell’s work you do get it over and over again, and she has the energy, the faith, the skill, to make her stories overwhelm us.”
— Alice Munro
“The novel is a chilling critique of the heartland values the author knows so well. . . . Waiting for Joe is 100-percent genuine, bone-chilling Canadiana.”
— John Barber, The Globe and Mail
“Deeply moving. . . . Birdsell draws . . . lives with vivid detail, suspense and sensitivity, creating a narrative that forces readers to keep turning the pages to find out how all the characters sort out their individual sense of ‘enough.’”
— Edmonton Journal