The Rusty Toque | Issue 4 | Fiction | February 15, 2014
Our mother, Francine, lay on the couch with two green bed pillows propped behind her head. She wore a pink sweater with jeans, and the outline of her body was hardly visible in her clothes. She held a crossword book in one hand and a pencil in the other.
My sister Alexandra sat in the middle of the living room floor on the Persian rug, even though Edward’s chair was empty. Her black hair was pulled into a ponytail, and her long bangs hung in her eyes. On her wrist, she wore a brown, woven leather bracelet, a gift from Brenda.
Alexandra and I had been home for two days, sleeping in the same queen-size bed in the spare room of the condominium. Alexandra flew in from Vancouver and I flew in from Montreal. The bedroom opened up onto the balcony, and at night the sliding glass doors whitened with frost.
Edward paid for our flights. A couple of weeks earlier, he phoned to tell us that our mother believed she was going to die. She had a pain in her side, but the doctors’ scans came back negative. When I tried to talk to her on the phone, she said it was too painful to stand or to sit on a chair in the kitchen. Edward told us she wasn’t eating.
Tonight, our third night in the condo, Edward went out to dinner with his daughter, Julie, who had been away at Princeton, studying law. When she returned to Canada, they resumed their weekly dinners. On Edward’s night out with Julie, we had always ordered in.
“Are you hungry?” I said to Francine.
She looked at her hand, studied the two gold rings. “Perhaps.”
“I could make my special salmon,” Alexandra said. She got up and switched on the pink-shaded lamp that sat on the end table behind Francine’s head.
“You’ve been talking about that,” our mother said. “Brenda’s recipe.” Then she said, “Laura doesn’t like salmon.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Tomorrow we’ll have Alexandra’s special salmon.”
Alexandra stood up. She was healthy and young, but this morning, when we went down for a swim in the empty, indoor pool, I moved ahead of her with my front crawl. She had resembled a lobster, all arms, no kicking from behind. Then she went into the sauna. When I arrived there wrapped in my towel, she was gone.
Alexandra went down the hall to the guest bedroom.
Francine penciled in a word, frowned at the page, then sighed.
“How do you feel right now?” I said.
“What do you think?” She looked at me sharply, a look I remembered from when I was young.
“It will go away,” I said. “I know it will.”
“They said it could last forever.” She laid her crossword book open and flat on her chest. I hoped she would ask about Stephen, about whether I missed him.
“Chinese?” she said.
“Find out what Alexandra wants.”
I knocked on the guest bedroom door but heard only silence. Then the phone receiver clicked back into place, the door opened, and Alexandra regarded me as if she hadn’t seen me in years and could not recall who I was.
Her hair hung weedy and unbrushed around her pale, round face. She climbed onto the bed, wrapped her arms around her shins, then buried her face in her knees. She wore the red, hooded sweatshirt with Edward spelled in black capital letters on the back; she must have found it folded in one of the dressers. Alexandra wore the sweatshirt everyday in grade eleven. The sweatshirt was how I recognized her from a distance in the cafeteria, in addition to her rigid slouch.
“What’s the matter?”
Alexandra looked up, blinked away the darkness. “What isn’t the matter?”
“You don’t want to order in?”
“I don’t care.”
“Being here, with her. You,” she said. “It brings back memories.”
She grabbed the scrunchie from the dresser and smoothed her hair back into it. When we were younger, Francine always dressed her up, gave her purses and necklaces and gloves. Alexandra’s hair had been a white blonde.
“What kind of memories?”
“You don’t have to talk to me,” she said. “I’ll be going home tomorrow.” Though the television was inches away from her on the dresser, she picked up the remote and turned it on. A man with a microphone stood before a car crash. She pressed a button and the channel changed.
“Does Mom know?”
“I told Edward.”
“Is it about Brenda?”
“It’s partly that. It’s just so screwed up.”
“You mean, she’s screwed up?”
“It’s not just her. It’s her family, too.”
“That wasn’t right about the birthday cake.”
“I know it wasn’t right,” she said, sharply. “You don’t have to tell me what’s right and wrong.”
She tucked her feet in the blue, knitted slippers Francine no longer wore. Neither of us had remembered how cold it was, even indoors, with Edward scrimping on heat. When we complained, he said everyone in the world now thought you could get through the winter months without a sweater. “Imagine that,” Alexandra said. Edward said someone studying psychology should come up with a way for people to keep warm without any heat at all. Our mother said, “Leave Alex be,” and he said, “She’s up to the task.”
“I was just trying to help.”
“It would be easier if you didn’t.”
“Mom wants to order Chinese.”
“Mom wants to or you want to.”
“It was her idea.”
“Yeah,” Alexandra said.
“Whatever your problem is, you’re acting really rude.”
Alexandra smiled at the television screen as she changed channels. Even as a kid, she overdosed on television, convincing our mother to let her have one in her room. “I’ll remember that one.”
I left, closing the door behind me.
The deliveryman came, and Alexandra took the bills Francine left out and paid. Then she carried the bags of food into the dining room. Francine slept stiffly on the couch, her arm over her face, a crossword face down on her chest. I opened up all the curtains. The condominium was outside Toronto in Etobicoke, and neither Edward nor my mother would walk in the neighborhood at night. They moved here to be closer to Edward’s door manufacturing company but didn’t leave when he retired. On our first evening in town, Alexandra and I wanted to walk over to the grocery store to buy milk and cereal for the morning, but Edward insisted on driving us.
Alexandra set the table with silverware our grandmother had left for Francine.
Alexandra wore a long, loose, red cotton dress. Her pigtails made her face rounder and younger.
“Mom,” I said. “Dinner’s here.”
She mumbled, her arm still over her eyes.
“You have to eat, Mom,” Alexandra said.
“Not hungry. You girls go ahead.”
Alexandra said, “If you’re not going to eat, I guess we’re not either.”
“Fine,” Francine said. “I’ll have an egg roll.”
“We gots eggrolls,” Alexandra said, and she smiled, showing the even teeth that Edward had paid for.
“We gots eggrolls, do we?” our mother said, pushing herself to a sitting position.
“We gots a lots.”
Francine stood. She walked toward the table carefully, as if her hips were rotating blades. By the time she had reached the table, she was out of breath.
“Are you all right?” I said.
“Pull out this chair for me.”
I pulled it out, and she sat down carefully. Then she picked up her knife, examined it, and set it down.
“One egg roll coming up,” Alexandra said.
“And why are you all dressed up?” Francine said.
“A gal can’t dress up?” Alexandra said.
“I just didn’t think you liked to. I thought you were more the casual type.”
“Turning over a new leaf,” Alexandra said.
Alexandra pried a lid off one of the boxes. She forked one egg roll out and put it on our mother’s plate.
“You girls can have all the rest of this. Edward doesn’t like Chinese.”
“Well, okay then,” Alexandra said.
“Alex, can you grab that other pillow from the couch?”
Alexandra went and got it. She helped our mother get the pillow underneath her.
“Time to eat,” Alexandra said.
“Laura, grab my pills from the coffee table.” I went and got them and she said, “Some water. Warm.”
I ran her a glass of water and brought it to her.
By that time, Alexandra had heaped our plates with rice, chicken, pork, egg rolls.
“Mom,” Alexandra said, sitting down. “What’s something you remember about me from when I was a kid?”
“I told you guys, I don’t remember a lot from those years. Those were hard years for me. Living with your father.”
Francine began to cut off a piece of egg roll. “What about the time you locked yourself in the bathroom and pulled all the toilet paper off the toilet paper roll?”
“I already know about that. Try to remember something you’ve never told me.”
“I wished it wasn’t all a big blank. How’s Brenda?”
“Try. I know there’s something in there.”
“I remember bringing you home from the hospital. And Laura was waiting for you by the Christmas tree. ‘Zanna,’ she said.”
“Can you remember anything just about me?”
“I remember you crying in your high chair when you had pneumonia,” I said. “I thought you were going to die.”
“Not sure about that one,” Francine said. “We were at mother’s when she had pneumonia.”
“You remember that?” Alexandra said.
“Mother was the one who said we should take you to the hospital.”
“You didn’t think anything was wrong with me?” Alexandra said, and she put a forkful of rice into her mouth.
“I guess I must have.”
She chewed, taking her time, then swallowed. “But it wasn’t your idea?”
“What’s so great about the past?” Francine said.
“People like to know about their pasts,” I said.
“I’ll never forget the time the school phoned me to tell me Laura was drunk, and that she’d tried to jump out a window.” She tilted her head, her face philosophical and quizzical, shrewd. “Do you really think you would have done it? Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder that.” Then she rested her fork and knife sideways on her plate, next to half an egg roll.
“I wonder what would have happened to me,” Alexandra said. “If grandma hadn’t noticed I was really sick.”
“You’re here today,” Francine said. “Isn’t that all that matters?”
“How was the egg roll?”
“I need to lay down. You girls finish this up. Keep the change.”
She put her hands on the table, stared straight ahead, and then pushed herself to a standing position.
“Chair,” she said, and before I could, Alexandra got up to move it out and away.
Then she gripped our mother’s arm and helped her walk to the couch. Once they were at the couch, Alexandra said, “The pillow.”
I brought the pillow over and placed it where the small of our mother’s back would soon be.
“You guys are better than Edward,” she said. “Both of you.”
Alexandra helped lower Francine down. Our mother let out a “Whew”, through pursed lips. She fished between the couch cushions for her crossword book. Alexandra switched on the pink-shaded lamp, then snuggled up beside her, and they did the puzzle together. They had always done them together on Saturday mornings, using dictionaries, atlases and encyclopedias. They wouldn’t look up from the dining room table until victory was theirs.
When it was dark, it began to snow—a lifting and falling net. Our mother flipped through pictures of a long ago trip to Namibia, and Alexandra lay on the floor on her stomach. Her pigtails were lopsided. Edward still wasn’t home. I always wondered what his Wednesday nights with Julie were like. Our father had lived with his wife and adopted daughter four blocks away, but we saw him only if we bumped into him at the movie theatre or grocery store or when we visited on Christmas Eve. We brought his daughter presents, but she gave nothing to us. When I was sixteen and Alexandra was fourteen, he bought us hand puppets, Alexandra the frog and me the spider.
“It’s snowing,” I said.
Francine dropped the pictures back into the package—they never bothered with photo albums. “Touched by an Angel,” she said.
Alexandra took one arm and I took the other, and we helped her into the den onto the new, leather couch, large enough for three football players, in uniform.
“Great for kids,” she said. But which one of us would ever give our mother a grandchild?
I opened up the baby blue blanket on the end of the couch and placed it over her. She took my hand and held it, gripped my fingers with her fingers.
Alexandra picked up the remote, pointed it at the television, and pressed the power button. She went through the channels until pining, orchestral music could be heard.
“You wouldn’t believe how warm this little blanket is,” our mother said. Her mother knit the blanket and left it to her. When I turned to go, she said, “There’s room here on the end.”
“Alexandra?” she said. “Room on the end.”
“I have to make a phone call,” she said. The show began. Alexandra left the den.
“Edward will be home soon,” I said.
She pursed her lips, stuck her chin out, then she peered up at me, as if to assess whether or not I had intended harm.
At the living room window, I watched the snow fall. Stephen moved out. He said he could not guarantee that he would always be there. I missed watching him shave, watching him eat his cereal and read the paper at the same time, the smell of his neck, like spicy oranges. When I locked up the apartment in Montreal to head to the airport, I looked forward to having other bodies around me.
I sat on the couch in our mother’s spot, still warm, the lamp still on. The three of us had always been like this, together but apart. After our father left and before Edward, Saturdays in our house were like church. Francine read the newspaper at the kitchen table or in a lawn chair in the back yard, I rearranged my room or drew pictures, and Alexandra sang to her dolls, her voice high and joyful. I had not been aware of any need we might have had for each other.
Alexandra came in and sat with her knees up in Edward’s chair, the chair where he drank his red wine and read his New Scientist. She wore blue and red tartan pajamas.
“So you talked to her?”
“Yeah,” she said.
“What did she say?”
“She says she doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
“You mean whether she’s gay or not?”
“She knows she’s gay.” There was disgust in her voice.
“Then what does she mean?”
She pulled the easy chair back and put her legs out, her feet enclosed in Francine’s slippers again. “I know you’re trying to help, but you can’t.”
“Don’t you think you deserve better?”
“We have this connection.”
“People always have connections.”
“She understands me in a way no one ever has or ever will.”
“You made her a birthday cake and she left you there with it.”
“You can’t understand.” She closed her eyes. She took in a deep breath, held it, and breathed it out.
“You think I’ve never loved anyone?”
She opened her eyes. “But has anyone loved you back?”
She brought her wrist to her nose and smelled her leather bracelet. “It’s not a real relationship unless they love you back. Otherwise, it’s just an infatuation.”
“Stephen said he did.”
“But do you really think he did?”
“I do everything I can to understand you, and you don’t do anything to understand me.”
“Is that right?”
“You think everything’s easy because I’m not gay?”
Alexandra brought her knees up, wrapped her arms around them tightly.
I felt sick to my stomach, as I always did when I hurt her. One summer, our mother went to South Africa with Edward for six weeks to meet his family and left us in our father’s care. In a rented Winnebago, our father took his wife, daughter and us to Florida. One night, Alexandra told me that people at school thought I smelled, and that I should change my clothes once in a while. I told her two days later, after thinking it through, what our mother told me: when I was born, she found her reason to live. Alexandra had lain still beside me, then said in a whisper that I was lying to get her back for what she had said about me smelling, but we knew what kinds of lies the other was capable of, what would have been simply beyond either of us.
Later, we went back to the den. Our mother was asleep on her back, her mouth open as she breathed. The blanket was tucked up around her neck.
I leaned over her, and I squeezed her arm. “Time to go to bed.”
She startled, gasped, then gazed at me in the dark, her face open and vulnerable, the other side of her, a side only Edward could have known.
I pulled her to a sitting position. Carefully, she rotated, so that her feet were on the floor. Then she pushed herself up. “I’m all right,” she said.
Alexandra and I each took an arm and walked her to the bedroom. Francine went into the bathroom alone, closed the door. She groaned, then was quiet for too long. When she came out, she was wearing a brown satin nightgown, something Edward brought back years ago from a trip alone to New Jersey. The bones in her chest showed.
She sat on the edge of the bed. The side she slept on was higher because a piece of foam had been laid down.
“Edward put this in for me,” she said. Neither Alexandra nor I asked why he was still not home. The bedroom seemed only to belong to her, with her containers of lotions and glass perfume bottles, mirrors and brushes spread across the dresser, objects from the middle of her life, when she at last found love.
“Pills,” our mother said, and Alexandra went and got them.
“You guys always got along when you were younger,” our mother said.
Alexandra stood in the doorway with a bottle of pills and a glass of water.
“Did you make sure it’s not cold?” I said. “She doesn’t like it cold.”
“It’s fine,” our mother said.
I took the pills, opened the bottle, and pressed one into our mother’s hand. “Two,” she said. I gave her another one, and she clapped her palm up to her mouth, then held her hand out for a glass of water.
“You want some lotion?” Alexandra said, and her voice wavered. We hadn’t looked at each other once since we saw her body.
“On the dresser. Aloe Vera. I like the smell of it.”
Alexandra went to the dresser and squeezed a mound of lotion into her hand. “Where do you want it?”
“Maybe my shoulders.”
“I hate dry legs,” I said, and I squeezed lotion into my hands. I knelt, smoothing lotion onto one leg, and then the other. “They get so itchy.”
“Then you can’t sleep.”
“It’s dry in here,” I said.
“Humidifier's back in the laundry room. Underneath some lawn chairs.”
“I’ll get it for you,” Alexandra said.
“There,” I said, as if I were proud of something, but when I touched her, skin, I failed to absorb her.
Alexandra dragged the humidifier out on its ancient wheels. She plugged it in beside the dresser; she filled a jug up several times to make sure it was full, then turned it on, loud and chugging.
“And what about you?” our mother said. “How are you really doing.” She meant Stephen.
“I feel what I feel.”
“But that isn’t necessarily good.”
I pulled Francine’s blanket back. I helped her lift her legs up into the bed. There was no way to say what it felt like to be alone—when I was supposed to be shoring up and securing essential belongings, I was still searching for them.
“You’ll be okay,” she said. “I always knew you would be.”
She sounded as if she was having difficulty getting the words out in a straight line, getting them past her teeth and lips, she sounded tipsy. I took her glasses off and rested them on the night table. I had seen her so rarely without them, that I felt like I had removed part of her face; the eyes that were left searched the darkness, then rested on me.
“How do you know I’ll be okay?”
“I just know you will be.”
“But how can anyone really know that?”
“I just look at you. I’ve never doubted it.”
“But what if I wasn’t going to be okay?”
She took my hand, held it lightly. She closed her eyes, smiling. The pills had kicked in; on the phone, she said that when she could feel the pills begin to work, she felt that she was floating.
Alexandra was already in bed, reading a book about Egypt, one from Edward’s pile. Sometimes it seemed she was his actual daughter.
“You always have to win,” Alexandra said.
“Brenda called. She’s picking me up from the airport.” Then she said, beaming, “And she says she has a surprise for me, something I’ll never guess, and something she’s never done for anyone before.”
“How is she supposed to see you?”
“The pain will stop when she wants it to stop.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“She probably feels it because of guilt, for not taking proper care of us when we really needed it.”
“You think she wants this?”
I changed into my nightgown, sleeveless, black cotton. I got into bed. In my bed in my apartment, without Stephen breathing beside me, I could hear the elevator going up and down late into the night, the ecstatic, drunken revelers.
Alexandra closed her book and placed it on the tall dresser beside her, the one she had as a teenager. She turned out the green desk lamp that used to be in my room. I would fall asleep beneath its gold heat, writing letters to my father. I wrote them on blank, blue paper Francine brought home from the office. Edward, a door salesman then, had walked in to the company one day and was greeted by Francine, the receptionist. She told the story over and over again.
Alexandra turned on her side, facing away from me.
My childhood dresser was at the end of the bed. The seashell jewelry box was still on it, full of bracelets and earrings, gifts from Edward’s solo trips that I could not bear to investigate, the plastic decorations of my adolescent arms and ears. Sometimes, our mother admitted to buying our souvenirs last minute at the airport or forgetting all about them as she and Edward toured markets and visited villages and strange cities. Once, she gave me a small white paper bag that said New York in red letters. She had eaten popcorn from it while waiting for a connecting flight to Toronto.
When Alexandra and I left for university, our mother and Edward sold the house. She cleaned out our rooms, sold our clothes and coats, CDs, books, shoes and hats and scarves at a giant garage sale, the first she had ever had. All our lives, she said how one day she would put everything, all of the objects we seemed hell bent on accumulating, out onto the driveway to sell. We were messy, and she couldn’t wait for us to leave. She kept the dressers and my lamp for the guest bedroom at the new condo.
How did the jewelry box survive the jettison? Perhaps she liked the look of it; tiny shells glued to red velveteen. She had brought it back from a trip to Florida, her first trip with Edward, before we had met him. Perhaps she had always wanted the jewelry box for herself.
The gold curtains hanging in the guest room were brought from my mother’s bedroom. After school, Alexandra always napped behind them as if being enfolded in the curtains was the closest she could come to being enfolded by our mother.
I did remember going to school drunk, getting caught in Home Economics when I cut up my orange and white-checkered pillow with scissors. Mr. Hughes made me stay in his empty grade seven classroom while he went to get the principal. I leaned out the window, gazed at the wet pavement below, and wondered if it might actually feel good to have my whole body smack against something so hard, if it would snap me into better feelings. Then the principal’s large, heavy hand landed gently on my back. At the time, our mother was in Turkey with Edward. She paid her friend from euchre to live with us for three weeks. Our father wouldn’t take us.
The bedroom was very warm, and the heat worked on my body like an intoxicant. Edward must have turned up the heat before leaving.
When she was little, I used to invite Alexandra to sleep in my bed. She could bring every stuffed animal she owned, animals that had traveled with her since the beginning of her life—the purple turtle, the striped snake, the pink walrus, and the golden retriever. Maybe Francine, after choosing me as her reason to live, didn’t need a second, and she had enjoyed the undeserved, unsought privilege of being the first reason, for both Alexandra and me.
The room was very quiet. I was trying to stay awake, so that I could hear Edward’s key in the door. But soon all I could hear was Alexandra softly sniffling, swallowing. I didn’t know what Alexandra’s memories were. Perhaps I was a thief in them, stealing again and again the thing I never once possessed.
KELLI DEETH'S acclaimed story collection, The Girl Without Anyone, published by HarperCollins, was chosen as one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books (2001) and sold internationally. Her stories appear regularly in literary journals such as Event, The Dalhousie Review, The New Quarterly, The Puritan and Joyland. Her new collection of stories, The Other Side of Youth, will be published by Arsenal Pulp Press in the fall of 2013. Her book reviews have appeared in The Vancouver Sun, The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Review of Books. She is also the senior editor of The Toronto Review of Books. Kelli Deeth holds an MFA in creative writing from The University of British Columbia. She lives and writes in Toronto. Website: http://www.kellideeth.net