Anglican Cowgirls, Anglican Cowboys

ANGLICAN COWGIRLS

“So, a group of us change our clothes and get together to drink cocktails and look at a picture in a bank lobby. A social plateau, certainly. Not every plateau’s above sea level. Still, the Medici were nice rich people, so who’s going to admit this’s silly? Not me. This is a roomful of believers.”

KATHERINE

Katherine woke with hair on her mind. What should she do with it? Wash it right now? Beat it to its knees before it has the chance to get ornery, and then expect it to behave until tonight? Not likely. Ordinary, more or less brown, neither quite straight, nor curly, if anything in particular, rather thin, Katherine’s hair, in her worst moods, reminded her of an old hen squatted on the long oval egg of her head. She blamed professional beehives of the past for its present condition, so there was no hope for a hairdresser, perfect and pitying. Maybe she could just wrap it in a scarf for lunch. It had to be decent, though nothing special, since lunch was only going to be Fran’s restaurant. Trust her mother to pick safe, cheap and boring. The only men in Fran’s were grey or gay, she could wear a bag and beat the competition. And then she could do something with it later? When? There mightn’t be time, or it mightn’t come out right, and it had to be right. It had to be spectacular for tonight. She’d better do it now. Maybe David would. Oh God!

David wasn’t snarled in the sheets beside her and her feet, cold at the ends of the pajama pants, knew that he hadn’t been there. Katherine tried a loud whimper, listened to the unresponsive silence, and burst into wet sobs. She flopped on her belly and blubbered, pounded the mattress and flailed at the mountain of little satin pillows that decorated the head of the wide bed until she gagged on a backward flow of phlegm and stopped. Then, swiping up her glasses, cigarettes and lighter from the floor, she tottered, dripping tears and mucus, out of the bedroom and down the stairs, feeling bereft, brave and full of vengeance.

There was no sign of David in the hall, no jacket dropped on the rug, no blanket rumpled on the livingroom couch, no briefcase dumped on the diningroom table. Not a trace, not a hair. Katherine ran her fingers over her head, filled a saucepan at the kitchen tap and put it on the stove. She kicked the door of the empty bathroom. The ashtray on the toilet tank had a couple of David’s filterless butts mashed into it, but they were yellowed with old damp. Still. She wandered back through each room stirring overflowing ashtrays with a half-hopeful finger. Nothing new. In the hall again, with a last-ditch trust in magic, lips tentative with surprise, she yanked open the closet door. Of course not, you stupid fool! He means it. She buried her head among the hanging coats and bawled.

The water ought to be boiling by now. Katherine pulled her head out of the coats, a hinge of her glasses had snagged hairs of her monkey fur jacket, they slipped sideways scraping her nose and the other hinge pinched a strand of her own hair. When she had finished screaming and cursing, punching hangers and kicking boots, and had slammed the closet door again, she was amazed to find that her glasses had survived intact. And pleased, she felt quite a bit better. Pausing at a doorway on the other side of the hall, she stared into her workroom, at the black canvas on the easel. I’ll be better off without him.

She scooped coffee into the boiling water and watched it foam up. Pouring it through the strainer, she noticed for the first time that the saucepan was stained with dirty brown ridges of scum. Why have I never seen that before? The stovetop was filthy with dried puddles and overlaid with a grit of dead grounds. There was grit under her toes, on the garbage can, in the sink – Him and his goddamned cowboy coffee! Shit, no more! I’ll get one of those filter things. Maybe a machine like Martin’s got, press a bunch of buttons and you get coffee in bed. Yah. Fuck David!

She ran a bath, dosing it with body oil from the classy line of cosmetics her grandmother was expected to supply in the way of gifts. Fortunately, Christmas and Katherine’s birthday were roughly equidistant in the year and Tillie was sufficiently generous towards her granddaughter, that there was no need to be parsimonious with the oils and creams which Katherine trowelled into her gaping pores. She might protest the spew of a Sudbury smokestack, but what harm in a few little chemicals to smooth the skin? All very well to save a lake, but if you couldn’t look good in a bathing suit.

Trailing her fingers in the tub, she thought about what she would wear to lunch. Anything would do, frumpier the better. And she thought about her mother insisting on lunch today of all days. Her way of getting out of tonight! She’s made it a tradition whenever I’ve an opening. She drives down and stays over at Gran’s and drags her out for protection and we all have lunch in some greasy-spoon she still thinks is smart because it’s got tablecloths and a hostess and she whines about what I’m wearing and then she has to take Gran home and it’s so far and everybody’s tired and she just can’t see how she could possibly manage. Bitch! I wish to hell I had chains and motorcycle leathers. I’d dress for lunch!

Katherine was considerate with a second shampoo and a conditioner, put her hair up in a clean towel and promised it a new ribbon, a wisp of silk velvet, if it would behave. She collected clothes and set the ironing board up in the middle of the kitchen, working naked to catch the gleam of her skin in the mirror over the sink. Cursing the ruffles on her blouse, the iron in her right hand, coffee cup in the left, she felt the towel slip. Reaching up with the iron, she felt the heat in time and used the other hand. Watching coffee ooze brown up one ruffle and down another, she realized that she would have to tell her mother over lunch that David was leaving. If I don’t, she won’t notice for months. I guess I wear a sweater after all. I have to tell her. I’m damned if I’m wearing heels just to suit her! She’ll say it’s my fault.

Polishing the toes of a pair of boots, she discovered a loose heel – damned Italians! Charge the earth and the wheels fall off – smacking the heel tight with the meat hammer, she got blacking under her nails. Painting over the nails, she remembered how she used to march them in a scarlet line down the ripple of David’s flat belly to. and burst into tears. She swiped at the tears and had to redo her nails, scrub the red varnish from her cheeks andmake up her face all over again. She needed Martin. She dialled, but of course he wouldn’t be home and she was damned if she’d talk to his answering machine, when the receiver was lifted on the fourth ring and a woman said hello. A woman?

Oh, the cleaning lady. No, Mr Knight had been gone when she arrived, and a good thing, too, or he’d have heard a word or two! The place like a pig sty, you should see the bathroom! And the laundry, she was sure it wouldn’t all go in one cart load and the machines were fourteen floors down and she didn’t see why. No, she hadn’t the faintest notion where he’d gone. The sheets need a whole machine to themselves. Yah, there’s a note somewhere, yah, can’t make out the name. Katherine? Maybe. Says, “Out hanging your masterpiece. Not to worry. See you at fabulous Fran’s for lunch with the girls. Drinks on me.” That make sense to you? Lucky you. Could use a drink myself. He never leaves enough silver for the machines and that bastard in the.

When she finally unwrapped the towel, her hair refused to stand. Resisting brushes, gels, combs, prayer, slack brown hanks hung to her nose, a slipped crown of thorns. Treachery. Katherine caught her lip between her teeth and took a number of deep breaths. Going to the diningroom, she chose a large tumbler from the hutch shelf. In the kitchen she broke ice cubes out of the freezer and dropped them into the glass. In the diningroom again, she picked a bottle of vodka from the shelf in the back of an old pulpit that served as a bar. She poured, and poured again, opened a can and added tonic. She raised the glass in front of her face. To an important day. She sipped and winced as the liquor cut. Perhaps the most important day of my life. She took a long drink that didn’t hurt. And nobody is going to screw it up for me.

KATYA

Katya stooped for the last pear, laid it gently atop the others in the plastic grocery bag, and straightened up with a sigh. It was real work, hard labour, this gathering of fruit in the cool mornings, but she was comfortable. She wore a bright cotton print cut from a square pattern that she could, and often did, run up on her machine in a matter of minutes. Indifferent to these body bags except as colour attracted her, she treated them as disposable if her eye changed, or remakeable if she saw a need for new cushion covers. Her sweater coat of hard wool, tightly stitched on an unmistakably European pattern, was somewhat more permanent, it took a few evenings to make one of those. Her shoes were expensive and homely, laced leather uppers and thick corrugated rubber soles, German, but she liked them anyway. And just in case the air grew fat with the smell of rain, she carried a kerchief and an old blue canvas anorak balled up in the bottom of her string bag.

She glared at the yard, it badly needed cutting. There was no excuse now that she had picked up all the pears. No love lost here – had they expected the fruit to blow away like leaves into the street? Purple petunias wilted in a patch of clay beside the porch steps. Who teaches this ugliness? They could’ve watered them, the hose there by the side door wound up on its drum and forgotten. What do they care about their little snatch of land, it came with the house. Behave and stay out of the dirt. They’ll pave it soon.

Nothing moved in the street, the heavy brick houses sucked at the silence. Katya looked again at the hose on its drum. She wanted to unravel it, to drag it rattling over the gravel of the drive, to slap wet coils across the porch floor, to throw wide the front door and wash the hall carpet the length of the house. Would anything happen? Katya wondered who lived in the house.

She stepped back to inspect the tree once more, standing beneath to spy out the pears hiding in the leaves. Perhaps another bagful, and they’d be down in about three days. She’d be back.

The October sky was wide and clean, enough blue pants for the whole Dutch navy, Katya thought, and with a deep cold breath she was a girl again in a Helsinki street, a basket of new pears in one hand, schoolbag in the other, skipping her red boots home to a steaming kitchen, to a treat of hot puula noisy with cinnamon and dripping with butter. She blew out her cheeks and crossed her eyes to see her breath. A belch of exhaust, a flurry of grit, and she was middle-aged in Toronto, stocky and bag-laden, grizzled curls, practical shoes and all.

Poking her bags along Davisville and into the subway crowd on the Yonge Street corner, Katya managed a goodmorning to the old Sikh flower seller rocking in a squat behind his wire cart. She’d heard a couple of boys screaming ‘Towelhead’ up and down the subway platform one empty Sunday morning. Dressed in jackets and ties, hair slicked, where could they be going at that hour except Sunday School? Their cracking voices ricochetting off the polished tiles had chilled her scalp and roused her to vengeance. She had caught one of the brats a wallop with her string bag, mashing some early cherries into her anorak, and ran them galloping up the down escalator.

The bearded, turbaned head made toward Katya an imperceptible bow, and the old man went on chanting to his roses in the wind. How often had she wrapped her own wet washed hair in a towel, made faces in the mirror and grinned when it all fell around her ears? Maybe it’s not the names, maybe it’s the calling that’s cruel. She said as much to Bena.

“Achh, Katya! You want to call people names? You are a fat lady in a loud dress who carries bags, you should be careful.”

Bena had caught her waiting to cross the corner, had swooped from the opposite curb in an unavoidable billow of capes and scarves, hair and knees; a brass gypsy so bejewelled with rings and chains and bangles that Katya was sure she heard her clang over the noise of the traffic. Katya was swept into a hug that shoved a disgusted grey gentleman into the road too soon stalling two buses and a cement truck. Bena’s rasp of a voice scraping through horns insisted that Katya come along into the charming restaurant just there so handy to drink some good coffee away from this terrible noise. Katya’s protest, that she had work to do, stumbled and fell over the sweeping dismissal of an armload of bracelets.

“This work, Katya, it has two legs? No? It will not run away. Come, the coffee is like home. And you are badly dressed. For this cold morning. You will turn blue and that is a colour for skies, and sailors, of course.” Bena’s odd gait had carried her to the restaurant door, “They are Swiss, but we will be nice, Katya.”

Katya hated the place, the stingy crocheted decorations, the tiny formica tables and plastic chairs, the starched blond women who beamed plump satisfaction behind a counter breastworks of potato salad and marzipan pigs. The other customers all appeared to be dim and elderly and eating cabbage rolls from paper plates; mothballs struggled with dank closets in the thread of rusty cloth. But Katya had settled and wanted for the moment to drink coffee and rest her feet. She wished she had let turbans lie.

“Katya, my Katya,” Bena’s pencilled brows bunched with concern, “You would be a bigot, I think, if people should hear you. It is true that I am the blood of Magyar kings, and you yourself are not from peasants and are at least a Christian lady, although not of the True Church, and it is true also that we have learned to speak the English language with its too many words beautifully, but you should not. Sssst! There is a man looking very hard at me. Don’t turn, Katya!”

Bena tried an elegant shrug to free the cape from her shoulders, but the intricacy of chains on her chest trapped a button and the shrug became a twitch which she turned to account with a luxurious adjustment of her hair, a thick coarse mane worn to her shoulders and peroxided to glittering brass. Who would have a wig this colour? Expensive ladies, my age, older even, they have hair like Swedish babies, a hundred dollars in a shop. Hair like a horse’s tail, a good horse, like silk, but who believes? Achh, they say, her age. Must be a wig. Me, they know. The offending button bounced across the table into Katya’s lap and the cape slid back to reveal a thin, high-breasted body in tight red wool hemmed above the knee. The knees, Katya thought, which were never explained, for Bena in motion had an odd mechanical, stalling gait, she appeared forever on her way downhill. Bena sat up like a cat to a bird.

“He is certainly looking. No, Katya! I will tell you. He is of course very handsome and has moustaches and wears a hat very straight on his head. He is smiling. He wishes to meet me. Sssst! He lifts his hat, Katya! He wishes to take me to dinner, perhaps. Free passes I can get for. He puts his hat on the table.”

The soldiers had come when Bena was fourteen and kneading bread in her grandmother’s kitchen. Bena gave them beer. They drank and put their hats on the table. A rifle butt broke her knees, cracked the bone at her temple, her right hip was forced popping from the socket, her thighs bled and she was left for dead. She stood up the back of a kitchen chair, drank a cup of water and poked up the fire. The lump of dough she had been working lay in the smashed crockery with her grandmother. Bena kneaded it slowly and into it went blood and hair. She shaped it and baked it.

“.yes, on the table. His teeth will be false. It will have shrivelled in his pants. He leaves his mouth open between spoonfuls. He is old, Katya. I will not acknowledge him.”

“You expect him to throw his hat in the air, Bena? Maybe his hair’s hot. Maybe it’s the custom where he comes from to share your cabbage roll with your hat. I think your blood of kings is overheated.”

Bena smiled tolerantly, “Ah, my Katya, it is better when you are a funny lady, better than this too much thinking of names to call people.” She rewrapped herself in the cape and scarves, stood, reached a hand for her button and patted her friend on the shoulder, “It is good to be generous, Katya. I will telephone. Go with God.” And she went, without paying for her coffee. Katya sighed, leaned back in the chair cradling her empty cup to warm her fingers and thought about words and insults.

She and Saami had spent their first winter in Toronto in a rented flat poring over an English translation of Peter and the Wolf with illustrations which matched reasonably well with the Finnish book she had brought. Arne had installed them, handed her a key to the door and a thick package of paper money tied with elastic string, and disappeared to a place called Upnorth, or maybe Chapleau, she wasn’t sure which, a place Arne had said wasn’t fit for women and children, which mystified Katya who didn’t mind the cold. Partly because she didn’t want to believe that this was now her home, she had resisted the welcome of the Finnish community in the city. Partly, her pride told her, if it were going to be her home then she didn’t intend to waste her future locked in a language warp complaining about the fish in the shops.

The wife of the Lutheran pastor had come once a week to drive Katya and the baby to a supermarket to buy groceries, but she had been a Swedish war-bride, her Finnish mostly limited to words for food, and although that made for a large vocabulary, there was little the woman had been able to do except point names at packages and cans and count out Katya’s money. Conversation had been all but impossible, and after an incident in which a confused explanation about peanut butter, which Katya had never seen, led to a terrified Saami with his mouth gummed shut, distrust had silenced the excursions. The stone-eyed landlady who occupied the second floor flat spoke no Finnish whatsoever and clearly intended to keep it that way. It had been a depressing winter.

As the snow began melting, Arne had returned from Upnorth, or Chapleau, or both, and although he called it coming home, which confirmed her worst fear, and though he laughed at her questions about the reindeer people she had come to imagine must live in Upnorth, Katya had been happy. She discovered a lilac hedge bordering the scruffy patch of backyard and had begun to tend it carefully, clearing leaves and rubbish, pruning and encouraging. The first leaves filled her with tears. She had asked Arne to teach her English with the baby in his highchair pulled up to the table. Green buds swelled. She learned. If lilac could bloom in this place, so could she. She would go to the store alone. The stone-eyed woman had cut the hedge down to a foot of stems. Katya was heart-broken, enraged, frightened by the hard black stare. Why, was an English word. Why? Indians could hide in there, the woman said.

That summer Katya had gobbled the language in a fury, had found a house for Arne to buy, had told the landlady in unbroken English exactly what she thought of her, and had started planting trees in her own new yard.

Katya shook her head at the memory, placed her cold coffee cup back in its saucer, grateful, as she had not been when served, that it wasn’t styrofoam, which it could’ve been considering the paper plates, shifted her feet solidly in her shoes and gathered up her bags. She gave money to the Swiss and went back to work.

MAUDE

Maude’s day was on the wrong foot before she touched one of her own bed-socked feet to the floor. Even before she opened her eyes, she knew she didn’t want to get up. The morning sun on her cheek, which was almost all of her that was exposed between a red felt tam tugged down to her ears and a red Hudson Bay blanket tucked up to her nose, that late morning sun beaming through the east window full on her right cheek was cold. And she knew beyond doubt that it had no intention of getting any warmer. For all that it was only October, early October at that, it might as well be February and be done with it. Weather was either hot, which Maude loved, or it was cold, which she hated so desperately that its advent forced her seriously to consider whether life was worth living.

The winter mornings of her childhood were at the bottom of it. Those frozen mornings: her sister Elizabeth too young for responsibility, too spoiled to leave her eiderdown; her father already long gone to the barn, to the warmth of work in cow heat and manure; herself gripped tight in flannel, Maude would stumble shivering down to the coalbin pleading God and the furnace to have vouchsafed her enough glowing coals to catch at her carefully fed tinder and roar a shovelful of black coal into flame. Those mornings when she was offered nothing but dead white ash taught Maude her first lessons in hatred and despair; hatred for the furnace and for the cold, despair with God and with living. She had also learned to kick and swear.

The telephone rang. Bugger off, Lizzie! Maude kicked off sheets, quilt, the red blanket, swung her thick, flannel-wrapped body to the edge of the bed, toed into furry slippers and dragged a monstrous old brown Jaeger dressing gown onto her shoulders from a chair by the door. In the hall, she peered at the thermostat, unconvinced, she gave it a rap. She glared at the ringing phone on its table and headed for the kitchen at the back of the house.

Where in hell is the tea kettle? It wasn’t on its regular burner on the stove, or in the sink expecting to be filled, or anywhere else that Maude could see on the empty white tiled counters, the bare yellow and green enamel table, the grey linoleum floor. Where in hell? How am I supposed to make coffee without the damned kettle?

There was, however, a milk carton standing in the centre of the stovetop. Why? Empty. Something about a scarf crossed Maude’s mind. If the milk’s on the stove, then the kettle’s in the. Maude swallowed a half-moment of panic. Hell, people do it all the time, transference, or something, absentminded, no problem. She opened the refrigerator, reached for the tea kettle and her heart did a cartwheel. A red wool scarf was draped about the shoulders of the kettle and precisely tied in a plump knot over the adam’s apple of the spout.

The telephone began again. It was too early for carpet-cleaners begging business, it could only be Elizabeth wanting to make one of her wire-crossed visits. .Did you sleep well, Maude? You’d feel better if you wouldn’t lie in bed. How are you really, Maude? You should eat, coffee and cigarettes aren’t breakfast. I’m into a size nine again, grapefruit and boiled eggs. Been out yet? You wouldn’t be lonely if you’d belong to something, a garden club, maybe, you’ve a yard, you could grow things, some nice flowers, it’s never too late to. Maude elbowed the double hinged door to the hall and after a half-hearted swing it muffled the sound of the ringing phone. If there must be a visit, she much preferred Elizabeth in the flesh. She liked to watch her nose flare.

Maude never charged her sister with killing her mother (Elizabeth’s too, of course, but barely) by her early and backward arrival on a freezing March morning, fire out, father at the barn. Elizabeth was quick to recognize the potential accusation for herself, perhaps mistaking her sister’s reserve for judgment, but Maude was, in fact, solitary by inheritance (their father spent the greater part of his life in the barn) and if Elizabeth was in any way made cautious by her silence, well, so be it.

.If you’d come back to the church, there’s the Auxiliary, Maude, they’d have you, or the Altar Committee, especially if you had flowers. You used to belong to the Institute, why don’t. Maude! You weren’t forced! Wives have a duty.

A solitary nature, particularly one indifferent to styles in hair, clothes, or dance steps, makes courting problematic; Maude’s nose firmly stuck in a book made it worse. Old Cousin Alice, sensible and generous, had seen the difficulty; had found a widow to keep house on the farm; had shipped Elizabeth off to boarding school, and had baited Maude with half of her preferred shares in Gooderham-Worts. .You’d come into them soon enough. Lizzie gets Havergal and a new hat. Yours we’ll leave lying around till somebody notices. The new accountant at the bank in the village, Harold ‘Harry’ Matthew, saw the certificates transferred into Maude’s newly acquired deposit box and proposed. Maude accepted, disgusted with the way the widow kept trailing down to the barn.

The next thirty years Maude referred to as the ‘Translation’, with its gradual loss of sense. She remained solitary. Childless, and thankful enough to allow that to be believed her fault, she followed her sterile husband, a man of affairs, of committees and councils, Rotary sings and Masonic aprons, through a succession of Ontario towns; everything from swans to turnips on her notepaper. She cut her own hair, actually using the domed lid of a vegetable dish to get an even length. She cultivated a fondness for reading into an eccentricity and was suspected of spending her clothing allowance on books instead of joining a library.

But Harry came to know enough curling doctors and golfing lawyers willing to sign commitment papers, so that Maude was forced to compromise and allowed herself to be enrolled in the lists of the Women’s Institute. She accepted Secretary-Treasurerships as her due in respect for her books and her husband’s job, but she was known to keep a private notebook among the stacks of minutes and account books, and whenever the assembled conversation left off foreign missions to take a narrower view of local behaviour, she could be seen busily scribbling down. Well, who knows just what she puts in that book? It’s not nice!. Over the years the message gradually got through and at last, while she was unpacking in Deep River (unable to imagine what the hasty-notes would be decorated with this time) the local Membership Committee decided to forget to welcome her. Finally, Maude could throw away the notebook full of the endless repetitions of a tea biscuit recipe.

.Well, I know you haven’t the taste for my committees, Maude, dear, but maybe the i.o.d.e. would suit you. I hear they’re not pushy about meetings, and they do potluck suppers and a nice little wine-and-cheese now and then. They aren’t dressy, they’d have you. Now really! They aren’t fascist old ladies, Maude!.

Elizabeth had smarmed, cliqued and bossed her way through boarding school and returned home virginal, bored and cruel. Within the year she netted a hard-playing, hard-drinking lawyer named George Preston from a reasonably respectable Toronto family on a wet weekend in the Muskokas. She confined George to a single round of Sunday golf, his scotch to a crystal decanter, and eventually managed him up and into the Chair of Imperial Trust. (The ‘Ascension’, as Maude called it.)

With the exception of occasional telephone calls from her childhood cronies, the Lettie sisters, and of course her ‘visits’ with Maude, Elizabeth resisted remembering where she came from. Even when the Lettie girls ventured down on their annual expeditions to the city’s hats and handbags, Elizabeth managed to be away ‘touring’, as she called it. Maude had once tried a first cure for social aggression by shutting up a four-year-old Elizabeth in the feed-box, but the wailing had so upset the pigs that they upset the chop-box and licked her way to freedom. Maude had been made to clean the slop pail for a month and learned to keep her hands off her little sister. Elizabeth got a whole hot johnnycake with maple syrup to herself and an aversion to pigskin gloves.

She continued her climb with vacations to places where the right people go, little discoveries with cocktails, places with chairs. She bothered with the ‘Arts’, liked to dominate her clubs, and ordered groceries from Holt Renfrew. Maude thought her to be practical (she had to admit that a pretentious table is best served with a twenty dollar pot of mustard), affected, undeniably ambitious, usually over-dressed, and about as deep as a ham-glaze.

.What about a Senior Citizens’ group, then? They’re all over, they get together and do things, they. I wish you wouldn’t use that kind of language! They dance and sing, you see their pictures in the papers, they’ve a rhythm band. Maude! Nobody says that anymore, they’re Blacks, now, and that’s no way. Well, if that’s your attitude.

The muffled ringing of the telephone had stopped, but Maude knew it would begin again in another hour, and another hour after that. Then the ambulance would arrive clanging with Elizabeth hot on its wheels with the spare key, having whipped her imagination to a stiff peak. It had happened once before, just after Maude packed up her interest in Gooderham-Worts and drove away from Harry to the city.

She had floated away one morning with coffee and cigarettes at the enamel table, trying to imagine what might be the hobbies of a God who went to the trouble of inventing furnaces, and then let them get cold. Were pestilence and famine just something tacked together in the basement workshop of a heavenly evening? Maude thought of Greeks imagining their fire god lame; his best friend a thief. Was that mortal revenge for crippling cold floors and the criminal price of stove-wood? If she had heard the phone at all that first morning, it must have been God trying to sell her fire insurance.

When Maude had failed to answer, Elizabeth panicked, mistakenly thinking life without Harry a reason for suicide, and dialled emergency. Maude, don’t you ever do this to me again!. Her humiliation before the disgusted ambulance attendants was wonderful to see, but Elizabeth’s relief at the sight of a still-living sister unexpectedly caused Maude to feel uncomfortably guilty. She ought not to let it happen again. Should she?

Maude opened the refrigerator door again. She remembered now, and removed the red scarf from the kettle. She had noticed the cold the night before and gone to the hall closet to sort through winter things, check on moths. A tam was easy, just tug, but somehow she had forgotten how to knot a scarf, her hands were backwards. She had needed something to practise on.

The kettle, she could see down the spout, was half full of milk. That was to be expected, she supposed, a white pretense to snow, perhaps, something to authenticate practice. For a moment she was undecided. Would it gum up and ruin the bottom of the kettle? Should she. Oh, what the hell! Might as well live a little. Maude sat the kettle on a burner, turned the switch on low and reached a jar of Ovaltine down from a cupboard. She stood the swing door open to the hall, cranked up the thermostat, patted the telephone and went to find her cigarettes.

Chapter 2

KATYA

Katya offered a pear to a delivery boy who was propping his shorts on a ten-speed and spooning up yoghurt from a plastic tub. He asked if the pear was organically grown. She said it was recycled. He said that was real, dropped it into a saddle bag, remembered to say thanks and jumped his bike back into traffic. A leather-faced man came dodging down the street cackling in the faces of passers-by. Katya gave a quick polish on her sweater sleeve and clapped a pear into his flapping hand without pausing in her step and ignored the articulate spew of abuse, between bites, that followed her down the block. At the corner she arranged four pears on a bench set in the shade of a dying maple. An old Pomeranian half naked with mange muzzled another, small and bruised, then jigged and yapped with such a malicious show of gums, that Katya dropped the soft fruit with a satisfying splat on the dog’s threadbare skull and crossed into the next block.

The woman wasn’t in her chair. Katya stopped on the flagged path and buttoned her sweater. The park gate was set back from the street, the path from the sidewalk bordered the yard of a low grey brick cottage and at the back of the lawn, beneath an arbour of trelliswork without a vine, an old fashioned, round-backed wooden garden chair, its white paint worn and blistered with bird droppings, sat empty. Katya shivered.

That first spring, when the lilac leaves had given her hope, Katya had walked Saami in his harness up this path toward the gate and then, suddenly not sure that the inviting stretch of green was a park, that it was indeed public and not someone’s private yard, she had stalled and reeled the baby to her knee. Beyond the iron palings a set of swings, a concrete drinking fountain. Surely. But what if. Saami fell to his knees to pull the grass edging the path and turning to him Katya had seen the woman bundled in the chair and she had gone hot with the fear of having blundered, forgot her words of English. But the woman’s eyes had been closed, the face tilted to the sun, she couldn’t have seen the embarrassment, the horrible wet confusion. Then the head had moved in one slow nod of affirmation and Katya had breathed again. Of course it was a public park, the concrete fountain was ugly.

In other years Katya had found more convenient entrances to the park; she had moved house, had gone back home, had returned, had had no Saami to push on the swings and the wooden seats had been replaced with rubber, but the fountain had remained a damp grey lump and whenever Katya passed that way the woman had been, sun providing, always in her chair, sometimes her eyes had been open.

Sun’s out, I wonder where she is? Katya shivered again, and not letting herself think of geese and graves, yanked a plastic bag from her sweater pocket. Park! She snorted with disgust, rotated the bulk of pears, string bag and herself between the anti-vehicle stanchion and a gate post and set off across the grass toward a lone crabapple tree.

Park! Flat as a cookie sheet, trees trimmed beyond reach, no shrubbery to poke at, to crawl under, to hide in. So no squirrels, no bums, no berries, no birds but the odd bitchy gull when the lake’s rough. No Indians. Don’t be so crabby, pick up the apples. She stooped and gathered, though she didn’t need more, had already done up three batches of mild rose-coloured jelly, but there they were, and they’d only rot. If the lawns weren’t cut you’d never find them in the long grass. Maybe, but having nowhere to hide isn’t a virtue. Neither’s having nothing. She filled the bag. What am I going to do with them? No good for benches, nobody eats them. She must be out in her chair by now, maybe she’d use them, could do something with her time better than sit. Doesn’t bother with the yard, one old peony and daisies gone wild. Doesn’t mean she mightn’t like to put up a few jars. Crabapples she can pickle, might just suit her.

Walking back across the park Katya’s gaze fixed on the row of children’s swings and as she strolled she swung her bags to a rhythm of humming deep in her chest – Baa, baa, old sheep, have you any wool? well, no sir, but yes sir, my three bags are full. One for the master, one for the old dame, and one for the little boy who lives.

Her son, Saami, (she had trimmed the vowels down to Sam the summer she learned English, but they grew back) occupied an ancient fish shed on the edge of a deep narrow lake, the far end of which poked under a barbed wire border into Russian woods. Solitary, gloomy, and glittering with a fine dust of old fish scales, he laboriously crafted deep-keeled rowboats from strips of cedar and indulged himself in drunken metaphysical searches for God which always ended with a birch whip in the sauna and long stretches of sobriety and rice. On her last visit, Katya had told him that she thought he was mistaking his flashing fish scales for enlightenment. He was her son, but she didn’t like him.

She came to a stop, resting her bags on a bench a few yards from the swings. She flexed the stiffness from her fingers and squeezed the muscles of her arms.

Arne had died beside a logging truck. At the time Katya had thought it silly that it wasn’t lumber that killed him, for the huge trunks had bounced in a cascade from the truck bed and rolled harmlessly down a slope. Arne had been standing on the high side of the slope, figuring a rough estimate of the prime heartwood, and it was a cracked, broken, sling-shot iron link of the chain which entered between his eyes.

Katya’s eyes travelled up and down the chains of the swings, looking for trouble. With a piping squeal, a child dressed in tiny jeans and a hooded sweatshirt came charging from the gateway at a waddling run and fell to his knees in the sand.

Sam had been three years old when Katya was left with insurance money and a rubbery dislocated feeling. Long tear-spotted letters and noisy transatlantic calls urged her and the baby home. An uncle arrived to count the money, pack her up and sell the house. Not knowing why, Katya resisted. She had made no friends, she was frightened and lonely, but she had planted her trees. There might be another way. She advertised the house for rent, took particular care to dress in a commanding twin-set and low heels, sent the uncle for walks with Sam, and interviewed prospects in impeccable English over cups of tea. She had been determined to impress whomever rented her house with her immutable conditions; no changes, no pruning, no handymen, no gardeners. She wondered why it was so important. The uncle said she was hysterical, perhaps a little crazy. She didn’t care, if that was what it took. She had realized she was coming back.

Startled by his fall, hands bruised on the packed sand, the child snuffled and started a long, wailing baby scream. A youngish woman, lumpy in quilted cotton and tortoiseshell barrettes, her face waxen with fear, anger and Nivea cream, galloped through the gateway, her shoulder purse thumping on a padded hip. To rescue her colt, thought Katya, an image she must remember to tell Bena.

It had been Bena who had rented the house on the third day of interviews. She had stood in the doorway looking right through Katya’s matronly disguise at a Larsen print of a child’s room framed on the hall wall. You are a European lady, like me, henh? You are going home, but you will not like it, I think. It will be changed and you will come back. I will keep your house for you and I will not change it. Katya had surrendered the teapot and led Bena to the kitchen for coffee.

“There! See? I told you not to run! It’s what you deserve, so shut up!” The young woman’s eyes landing on Katya went hot with embarrassment, dropped to the bulging plastic bags and flared with disgust. “Get out of there!” And the screaming child was yanked to his feet. Not so young, Katya thought as she looked down and rummaged in her bags, they seem to wait too long in this neighbourhood, for the right husband, or the right house, no patience left for diapers. “No! He doesn’t like pears!” The child whimpered as his mother swatted at his reaching hand. She twitched back to guard her purse and glared at Katya.

“Any child can use a pear. What are you afraid of? My bags? That I want something? You haven’t anything I want, except maybe the child. And I’m not that crazy. You’re afraid because you don’t know me and you don’t know where the pear came from.” Katya swung her bags down from the bench, “I don’t want you to know me. And the pear was offered to the child.” She walked to the gate and left the park.

The woman still wasn’t in her yard. Katya stopped on the path, her bags dangling. Alone beneath the empty arbour, the garden chair looked uncertain; it was its own heavy old woman caught absent-minded in a soiled nightgown, forgetful of just why it was out here in the first place. Katya stared at the windows of the house. Was her offering too late? Oh, for God’s sake, you worry death like a bone! She’s old. You don’t even know the woman! Well, maybe it’s something else, a phone call, a slow kettle, a button off a housedress more than likely. She’s always out on a sunny day. So, maybe she’s out in Florida! Timbuktu, for all you know. For all it’s any business of yours. You’re turning into the worst kind of nosy parker, no wonder people glare at you and grab the children. She might have had a fall, an attack. Maybe I should knock at the door. And maybe she’ll call the police.

Katya crossed the lawn and sat the plastic bag of crabapples in the chair. She nipped a few deadheads from the overgrown peony bush and waited for a curtain to move. She thought the chair looked smug, as though it held a bustle of groceries in its lap. She moved the bag, leaning it against the right leg. She walked out to the street, dropped the dead flowers into the gutter and looked back at the chair. It looked better, just resting, with a bag at its feet. She turned away.

MAUDE

Maude held still behind the kitchen curtains so long she felt faint and a ring of coloured geometry began worming at the edge of her vision. Dizzy, two cups of Ovaltine uneasily awash, she gripped the window frame and watched the bag lady ebb in a circle of light from the side yard. You forgot to breathe, y’old snoop! Snoop? Well, it’s my yard! Indignation and deep breaths brought her back to ground, lights and stomach subsided.

Who is she, anyway? Dumping her junk in my chair, picking at my flowers. What’s she up to? I’ve seen her, she’s by with her bags often enough. Where could she live around here? They don’t let rooms in the neighbourhood that I know of, too proud, even when they’re up to their blue perms in taxes. And they say her kind doesn’t want a roof anyway, wouldn’t thank you for it. Maybe she lives down the ravine. But she looks clean. What’s in that bag?

Maude parted the curtains and screwed up the bridge of her nose for a closer look. The plastic grocery bag leaned lumpily against the leg of the lawn chair. She considered terrorism, it was popular, and though she knew better, the plastic of the bag was implicated by association with a fuzzy idea of explosives. But no, the woman, even if she clearly was a foreigner – the sweater and the thick shoes gave that away – was too old for that sort of thing. Which also made abandoned babies unlikely. Anyway, this’s Toronto, for heaven’s sake, not Beirut, not even a drug-crazed bomber could mistake a brick cottage for an airplane. You wouldn’t think.

Drugs! Maude felt a flutter and made herself concentrate on a few breaths. Maybe that’s it, though, drugs! It’s a what d’you call it. A stake out! No, that’s the other way ’round, fool. A. drop! That’s it. Any minute now somebody else comes along in a grubby trenchcoat. no, a big Cadillac with black windows, with a fat cigar clenched in hairy knuckles and a huge egg of a diamond – bad taste, not right for a man really – and thick blue suits with bulges in the armpits – that must be a problem, you’d think, what with gun oil and leather polish and enough Brut or whatever to cover it all up, it must get awfully high, I suppose that’s why they like to own dry-cleaning places and laundries, not just for the money. .Or they might be Black, as Lizzie calls them, and have those stringy camel-crap hairdos, or motorcycle drivers from Quebec, maybe, and they grab a shopping bag full of cocaine and heroin and what-have-you right out of my chair and take it down to Chinatown, or Harbourfront, they like boats, and jump on it, or something, and before you know it the boy next door is collecting television sets instead of bubblegum cards.

Maude sucked her dentures in disgust. Get a hold of yourself, you old fool, it can’t be dope in Davisville, the houses are detached, besides that woman’s not dark enough to be Italian and the men do it anyway, women are too busy making tomato sauce commercials. She reflected a sour face in the window pane. You’re going to end up with your ass in a sling one of these days, if you go on like you do. You don’t know a joke when you hear one. It’s not me I’m worried about hearing it, you’d better watch your tongue, they’re making laws about some of the things you think. Oh, for Christ’s sake! Sometimes you’re as stupid as Lizzie. Go out and look in the damned bag. Maybe it’s kittens.

ELIZABETH

Snatching her coat from a hanger, Elizabeth Preston was angry enough to slam the closet door, but she had discovered when she and George had moved into the Moore Park house after the death of his mother that the thick oak doors swung on their hinges with such ponderous certainty, such a weight of invested dignity, that the wildest temper could accomplish no more than a self-assured thunk. The wardrobe drawer from which she chose a pair of brown kid gloves was as discreet, sliding home on waxed runners. Her heels could make no noise on the thick carpet of the upstairs hall and for the sake of release she made an unnecessary stop in the bathroom at the top of the back stairs to check her hair and slam down the lid of the toilet seat. She felt calm enough then to descend to the kitchen and speak to Mrs Quaid, “It’s such a bore being an impor. well, having an important position, really, a responsible position.” She hesitated in her stride across the kitchen and glanced at her housekeeper. “It’s important to be responsible, isn’t it, Mrs Quaid? You being Scottish, you know what I mean, you being such good managers.”

Mrs Quaid nodded her lean grey head over the row of salt cellars and the tin of polish ranged before her on the big work table. In fact, she was Polish and had married a liberating quarter-master’s clerk, but Elizabeth having been presented with a dry little body, a wrinkled pucker of a mouth and a name, had assumed during the interview that she was getting a Presbyterian gentle-woman down on her luck, cheap, and Mrs Quaid had seen no reason in ten years to correct the mistake. She seldom needed to speak, affirmation being the expected response to most of what Elizabeth had to say, and she had learned from her husband to say ‘ach aye’ for formal occasions.

“I mean it’s so aggravating to have important things to do in the community, necessary things, and then have an irresponsible agoraphobe for a sister. Because that’s what she is, you know, no sense denying it! George says she’s just a private person. Private my eye, she’s crazy! And I’m beginning to think it’s worse than that, some of the things she’s said to me lately. I think.” Elizabeth lowered her head with her voice, “It’s Alzheimer’s.” She noticed that Mrs Quaid hadn’t nodded. “You don’t know, you haven’t seen her.” To which the housekeeper could agree, although she thought the sister probably preferred privacy to Mrs Preston’s telephone calls. Mrs Quaid heard only one end of the conversations and that was more than enough.

“I wasted half the morning trying to call her about tonight, and no answer!” Elizabeth hovered by the telephone on the kitchen counter tugging a glove onto one hand and examining a silver wire basket for missed tarnish. “I’ve a million things to do and George won’t let me have the driver even though this whole reception business is for his benefit, the bank’s anyway, says it’s a waste of the man’s time and the bank’s money, if you can believe that! What else are they for, I’d like to know? Just because he likes to walk! I’ll never find a place to park. Men!” She lifted the receiver, punched buttons with a gloved finger, tapped a brown, ostrich-covered toe on the linoleum, “She’ll make me late for. Maude? I’ve been half the day calling you. I’ll be late for my hair. Why weren’t you answering? I have to find shoes yet, thought I had them, but they’re a bit. you know. afternoonish. Why didn’t you answer? I’ve a committee at four and I’ll probably have to.”

“G’day, Lizzie. Fine, thank you. And yourself?”

“Fine, thank you. Busy of course, but why haven’t you.”

“I won’t keep you then. My tea kettle’s wearing a scarf and there’s a dope ring operating out of the side yard, but everything’s fine here. You get your curlers out and go find some nice bedroom slippers. Bye.” And the connection was broken.

Elizabeth stared in disbelief at the dead receiver in her hand, a flood of panic weakened her knees and she clutched at the counter, sending the wire basket skittering across the formica. “She’s gone!” Mrs Quaid rose in alarm from her chair. “Right around the bend.” Mrs Quaid subsided with a nod, thinking there was room for another opinion. “I’ll have to call. No!” Elizabeth gasped at the memory of the ambulance sent chasing to Maude’s door and noticed that she was soaking wet under her clothes. “God, I can’t go anywhere like this! I’ll have to change. Damn her!” Her jaw tightened, her knees locked and she punched out the phone numbers with a knuckle, “She can’t do this to me!”

“Hello, Lizzie. D’you call the ambulance yet?”

“Damn you, Maude!” Elizabeth felt a rush of hot tears. “Why do you have to do this to me? Frighten me half to death. You like to hurt me, don’t you? You’re a sadist, Maude, you’re cruel and mean acting crazy like that. Why don’t you grow up!”

“Don’t you forget who powdered your pink bottom, Little Beth!” Maude was nervous. Pretending to the drug drama in her yard helped beat the boredom, but she had found the kettle dressed in a scarf in her refrigerator. Despite that, she was less afraid of the tricks her mind might play than of its retreat altogether, exhausted and paranoid, defeated by Elizabeth’s relentlessly pursed lips. It was a risk, but. “Does it never occur to you that you make me crazy? Nag and whine, do this, do that, you’d be nice if you’d do this, you’d be happier if you’d do that! You talk to me like a halfwit!” Maude sucked a breath that trembled in her throat, “If you can think of anything to say that I want to hear, Lizzie, say it. Otherwise, get off my phone.”

There was a moment of silence while Elizabeth considered her angle of attack, surrender being unthinkable with Maude talking such nonsense. She needed help whether she knew it or not. “They say they’re the last to know.” Elizabeth mouthed in a whisper to the housekeeper. And her voice was soft with concern when she spoke into the phone. “I’m worried about you, Maude dear. I was just saying to Mrs Quaid that I think you may be having just a little trouble remembering some of.”

“Are you deaf? For Christ’s sake, Liz.” Chuckling with frustration, Maude sank onto the chair beside her telephone table. “Forget it. Don’t think. What do you want?”

Elizabeth gripped the insides of her cheeks with her teeth, shifted her position and drew a long breath through her nose, “We shall expect to see you at eight, then.”

Sensing a trap, Maude’s shoulders tightened against the back of the chair, “What? Where?”

“You see?” Elizabeth snorted out the long breath and with eyebrows raised threw a knowing look at Mrs Quaid who caught it without lifting her head. “You’ve forgotten, haven’t you? I told you ages ago about the reception. Didn’t you pencil it down? It’s not as if your calendar’s swamped with engagements. Funny you shouldn’t remember something I’ve told you.”

Maude fought a scream by crushing her eyelids. “What reception are you talking about, Elizabeth?”

“The reception at the bank, Maude. The rather grand little gala I’ve arranged to celebrate the new interior, Maude. You can’t have forgotten the bank’s having a re-do, can you, Maude? You know, that place where George keeps your money, dear. Actually, it’s gorgeous!” Elizabeth suspended hostilities out of enthusiasm. “It’s the main foyer really that’s the centrepiece of it all, three stories now, all glass and creamy grey marble, very elegant, all the counter things, the wickets or whatever you call them, all that sort of thing’s been put behind an enormous wall, so it doesn’t look commercial at all, you see. It’s stunning, you’ll love it.”

“No.”

“Oh, yes, you will when you see it, believe me. Very handsome. Almost Greek, Maude!”

“No.”

“Well, maybe not Greek, not that black olives and goatmeat sort, anyway, grander, you know, classical, very cool and simple. Except for a sort of balcony thing that’s. Well, never mind, it’s post-modern apparently and I’ve solved that problem. That’s why you have to come, Maude! The Board asked me to chair a search committee – I can’t believe you’ve forgotten this – I was asked to find something good in the way of art, something to display the finer aesthetic, you know, to show that the bank’s not just cash and carry. It gives people something to look at, lets them feel more at home, of course, they won’t have anything as good at home, but then they aren’t banks, and wouldn’t you know I’d find a really brilliant painting – I just do have more feeling for this sort of thing – an absolutely guaranteed work of art that’s the perfect touch, the colours and everything, I just can’t tell you, Maude! So, you see the reception’s as much for me, for the art, as it is for George, for the bank!”

“No.”

“Oh, it is, you wouldn’t believe what I’ve had to deal with, the organization, those hospitality people are hopeless without someone who knows how these things are done. Thank god for young Martin, at least he’s handling the painter woman for me, I wouldn’t know what to do with that sort. I don’t imagine you’d know him, Martin Knight, his mother was at Havergal, Madge Stevens she was. Lovely boy, so helpful, Madge was always a bit flighty though she has the best taste, but he seems very sensible. Anyway, he’s an agent more or less in a nice way, not pushy the way some of them are, always talking money and investment potential, as if art isn’t above all that, and he found a woman who’s not that well known so she’s not asking the earth, thank god, though it still seems a bit steep considering Martin says she’s not forty and we don’t have her at the Gallery, but Madge had a look apparently and it’s a big picture, so it’ll help that wall, insure the integrity of the surface, Martin says, a coup, a very definite statement. So, you can’t say no, Maude, you have to come. Your navy silk’ll do, I suppose. You still have it? And shoes?”

“No.”

“Well, what’s happened to that pair of court shoes that you. Oh, never mind, you need something with a newer heel anyway. I’m taking back this pair that aren’t quite right this afternoon. I don’t know who makes up these sizes, somebody with bound feet, I wouldn’t be surprised, not that these aren’t Italian, but you know they just don’t put in the leather the way they used to. So, why don’t I pick you up at.”

“No.”

“You be ready and I’ll.”

“I’ve got shoes. I’m not going.”

“Well, why did you say that you didn’t? Honestly, Maudie! I imagine they need a good cleaning, though. You do that. I have to run now, but I’ll call later. You can look nice if you try, dear. Ciao for now.”

“Bugger off, Lizzie.” But it was a half-hearted stab into a dead receiver. Maude sprawled on the narrow chair, rolling her head side to side on the high hard back; she would have been in tears if she hadn’t been laughing.
Elizabeth stood for a moment smoothing her gloved knuckles, picked up the silver wine basket from the counter and pointing to a black smudge inside the pedestal base, replaced it on the cloth before Mrs Quaid, “It’s for her own good.” The housekeeper felt compelled to nod.

Chapter 3

* * *
3

Anglican Cowgirls

KATHERINE & BEA & TILLIE

Katherine was pleased with herself and slightly surprised that she felt so comfortable wearing David’s suit. Self-assured, this must be how men felt, she thought, controlled and controlling, having figured out how to cinch the waistcoat tight. David had not yet emptied out his side of the bedroom closet, which Katherine took with crossed fingers as a hopeful sign, and there it was, a blue, almost black cloth with a pale pin-stripe, his funeral suit, his unavoidable-occasion suit, he called it. Her hips held up the trousers. When she slipped her arms into the jacket, the sleeves only a trifle long, she half expected revelation of some sort, a sudden understanding of futures trading, perhaps, the real purpose of a carburetor, but instead her body heated with a lavish sexiness that almost spoiled the crease. Her anger that this secret had been withheld from her, that men hid this pleasure and passed it from father to son, called for another drink. She found David’s favourite tie on the back of the closet door and finally worked out a reasonable knot. She downed the last of the vodka and tonic, satisfied that she had solved the mystery of male confidence.

Pulling open the restaurant door, Katherine was exhilarated and, she believed, sober. A slight wobble, when the door offered less resistance than expected, she blamed on her badly-cobbled boot heel. Swinging from her shoulder, a large deerskin bag carbuncled with brooches urged a path through a milling queue of shorter people in shoes.

Hooker, thought the hostess, a pretty brown woman dressed in sharp lime polyester and a headband of tissue pumpkins around a cardboard turkey. Dyke, for sure, but only a hooker’d have the nerve. “Sorry, diningroom’s full. There’s room at the counter.” She begged herself not to say Sir. She’d been insubordinate about having to wear the headband, she couldn’t afford a scene.

“S’all right, I’m meeting friends.” Katherine’s scanning eyes found them, dropped for a moment, and focussed on the headband. She patted her own treacherous hair, bagged and pinned into a soft beret of black and gold threads, and smiled, “I like your turkey.” She strode between tables unaware of the flaming eyes on her back, but feeling a sudden tension at the base of her skull, blamed it on her mother smiling anxiously from a chair beside the flapping kitchen door. Katherine patted her bag for the bottle of pain-killers.

“Hi! I’m late. Here long? Hello, Mother.” To avoid her mother’s stare, which had flown up a trouser leg and fixed at the second waistcoat button, Katherine circled behind, trailing her fingers across her mother’s cardiganed shoulders. Feeling a muscle flinch, she paused to pick invisible lint from the sweater and brush it to the floor. “Hi, Gran!” She reached her grandmother, bent to hug her gently and kissed at her crown of white curls, careful not to disturb it. “Good to see you. Nice dress.”

“Thank you, Katherine.” Tillie Sutherland patted her plum silk bodice in the timid manner of old ladies, disguising the straightening of a fine cameo in heavy gold. “We’ve just settled.” Her lips twitched as she darted a glance at Beatrice whose fixed stare had turned into a frown of distaste. “You’re looking well,” Tillie said, turning her head to watch Katherine sit, and hearing a disgusted intake of breath, continued, “Your mother was late.”

“You weren’t even dressed!” Beatrice McAlpine lurched forward in her chair. Sideswiped in her displeasure, it took her a moment of concentrated breathing to switch back from her mother to her daughter, “Katherine, why on earth are you wear.”

“You’ve never been late that I recall.” Tillie interrupted with her eyes on the ceiling.

“I didn’t expect the roads to be so busy!” Beatrice snapped. “That’s a suit! A man’s.”

“It is busy. Did you have to wait for a table?” Katherine looked briskly around the restaurant and pointedly at the doors to the noisy kitchen beyond her mother’s shoulder, “This table?”

“No, not long, dear. I leaned on this,” Tillie patted the curve of a malacca cane hooked over the arm of her chair, “and gave that girl my lady-on-a-stick look. She’s a sweet thing, but have you ever seen such a get-up as she’s got on?” With a toss of her lean head, Tillie indicated the hostess busily dealing out napkins and forks in the wake of a busboy at an adjacent table.

“Shush, Mother! She’ll hear you. It’s a uniform! She can’t help what she has to.” Trying to keep her voice from rising with her blood pressure, Beatrice fairly whistled with exasperation, “Why are you wearing that suit?”

“We having a drink first?” Katherine’s arm rose, “Which one’s our waitress?”

“Oh, Katherine!” Beatrice’s mouth trembled, “It’s only noon, you don’t need.”

“Look, Mother!” The arm waved, four brass bangles escaped the sleeve and clashed. Katherine planted both elbows on the table and finally focussed on her mother’s face, ignoring a tear starting in the corner of one eye, “It has already been a long day. A long, long day. Yes, it’s a suit. David’s suit. I knew you wouldn’t like it. I felt like wearing it. I like wearing it. I feel good in it. And I need to feel good because I’ve had a miserable, lousy, rotten day since I opened my eyes this morning. You don’t.” Her determination failed and she sagged to the back of her chair, “You don’t know.” She was thinking they didn’t know what it cost to be like her, “Tea for you, Gran? Are you coming tonight, Mother?”

“Yes, surely, dear, with lemon, please.” Tillie fiddled with her knife, “Stainless steel! They used to have silver here.”

“Times change, Mother.” Beatrice reached and pressed Tillie’s knife to the tablecloth, “It’s likely the dishwashers. No, Katherine, I don’t think we’ll be able to come.”

“Tea with lemon, a vodka and tonic with lime, please, and.” Watching for her mother’s response, Katherine didn’t notice that the hostess had answered her call, “.don’t you want anything, Mother?” The hostess wasn’t so sure of her first impression, maybe hooker was too precise.

“D’you mean they’ve stolen it all?” Tillie resented her daughter’s maternal fingers on her knife.

“No, Mother! The automatic washers are hard on the. Oh, for pete’s sake!” Beatrice held her chin with her breath and blinked hard.

“Make that a double vodka, please,” Katherine pressed fingers to the base of her skull, “Could I have some water right now.” She noticed the headband again and smiled.

Beatrice sighed a long-suffering little headshake at the hostess and unpursed her lips, “Maybe I will have a little something. Do you have an old-fashioned? I’ll have one of those, please.” And before the hostess could leave the table, “Do you need the ladies’ room, Mother?”

“Most certainly not!”

“Are you sure you can’t come tonight?”

“Why d’you always wear that ratty old cardigan?”

“I don’t always! No, Katherine. I mean yes, I’m sure we can’t. It’s not old, Mother, I bought it last spring, it’s.”

“All pilled at the elbows.”

The hostess went to the bar for the drinks and told the section waitress in passing, to leave the trio to her, “Social studies,” she said, “You can have the tip. I just want to listen. But don’t count on a trip to Jamaica, they don’t look like Dallas to me.” She told the busboy to take water to the table.

“But it’s the Imperial Trust, Mother! I’m hanging in the new foyer, I will be tonight, where you come in off the street, three stories, marble and glass and me on the wall!” Katherine pulled the deerskin bag to her lap and rummaged to the bottom for pills.

“I know what a foyer is.” Beatrice waggled a half-yard of plasticized card, “Here, Mother, look at the menu,” and watched her daughter uncap and roll out two white codeine tablets onto the tablecloth, “Have they paid you yet? Martin handling it for you?”

“Unhuh, he knows. Thank you.” She ran her eyes up the busboy who set the full water glass in front of her, nice body, bad skin, and swallowed her pills. “Martin knows the woman who’s acquisition committee Chair-whatever, lady, probably. She’s a family friend. The Board of Directors has to see it yet, that’s what tonight’s for. Just a formality, though, Martin says she’s the boss. Somebody’s wife. You sure you.” Katherine tilted back her head and exercised her jaw against the loosening knot of pain behind her ears, “.can’t come?”

“Yes. Well make sure they pay you, dear.” Beatrice cast an eye at Tillie, “Know what you want yet, Mother?” and turned with a pucker back to her daughter, “Have to get her back and see to things, you know. She’s lost the hydro bill somewhere and I.”

“Not the hydro bill, the phone bill! And it’s not lost, I just mislaid it.” Tillie glared at her daughter and closed the menu. “Treats me like a fool, Katherine. She talks as if my mind’s gone, let alone going, trying to hurry it. Thinks she’s finally going to get some decent jewellery.” Tillie again patted the cameo on her breast, “I expect to be buried with this,” and gave Beatrice a smile of benign malice, “Your picture, Katherine, have I seen it? Is it nice?”

“No, you haven’t, Gran, it’s way too big for my workroom, twelve by sixteen, biggest thing I’ve ever done, had to do it in the studio at school. But I think you’d like it, you’ve seen the little ones, the smaller versions, the rocks, abstractions, but not quite. You know the ones. Colour studies, in a way, mass and matter studies, I’m trying to get the weight without piling up the paint, density with just a skin. You know? I look at a rock and there’s the skin, the surface, hard and tight, but for all I know, all my eyes know, anyway, it could be hollow, eh. And I don’t know it isn’t unless I try to pick it up, or rap on it, or somebody tells me, and even then how do I know unless I cut it in half?” Katherine’s absorption was turned wide-eyed upon her grandmother, “A painting you can only touch with your eyes, so it is just a skin. Maybe rocks are like this, if we don’t touch them,” she described tissue thinness with thumb and forefinger, “Only yay thick. Or maybe they’re weightless till you try to pick them up, and then they dig their toes in.”

Tillie approved of her granddaughter, she wasn’t frightened of her, as Beatrice was, though she was often mystified. Why the suit, for instance? Why was Katherine wearing David’s clothes, not just a shirt or a pair of sneakers, but an entire suit of clothes, an entire personality? A personality not hers but David’s, or was it also hers? Of course, the suit had been guaranteed to throw Bea into a swivet, Katherine had known perfectly well there’d be a scene, but Katherine was not merely malicious, she wasn’t only cruel. Tillie knew that there had to be at least one more reason for the suit. Perhaps the fact that it was David’s? “This reception business tonight, will David be with you, dear?” Watching Katherine’s eyes, Tillie thought she detected a dimming, a falter in the shine. She listened for doubt.

“Of course! Yes, of course, David’ll be there. We’re having dinner together with Martin first at my. our place, David’s cooking. I don’t know what. And then we’ll go from there. David’ll be there for sure. I really wish you could come, Gran.”

Tillie heard what she was listening for. There was panic behind the pin-stripes, perhaps she ought to go, perhaps she and Bea should be on hand for what was, after all, surely, quite a triumph, a picture hanging in a city bank. Bea mightn’t have any sympathy for her daughter’s painting, but she certainly admired banks, if anything, Bea had far too much respect for money. “And will it be a large crowd, d’you think? A formal crowd? A lot of money and clothes?” Oh dear, shouldn’t have said that, Tillie thought, Bea was intimidated by other people’s clothes.

“I don’t know. A lot, I suppose. Of people. It’s the first show for the bank’s new decorating job, too, you see, not just me. But it’s not formal, Martin showed me one of the invitations and it said informal. Although god knows what informal means to these people – tennis whites? smoking jackets? I don’t know who they are. Oh God!” Katherine wilted again, “I’m not going to know anybody.”

Tillie knew who they were, and she knew how badly dressed they could be when allowed out of their formal uniforms. The men weren’t so bad, out of one suit, they simply wore another, another kind of tie; it was the women, allowed out of their giving or receiving clothes, they didn’t know a hem from a gusset. “Perhaps,” she said with a confidential elbow in her granddaughter’s direction, “perhaps just this once we should come along.”

“No!” Beatrice was still fuming over that remark about decent jewellery, as if she’d ever asked for, ever wanted that ugly old-fashioned brooch anyway! Fuming and hurt, she had perfectly nice things of her own! “I’m not taking you anywhere.” She was sorry she’d brought her here. I mean it’s best, she thought, to ignore Katherine when she gets talking about paint and things, it doesn’t make any sense, all that about rocks having skins, it’s silly. She hoped nobody else had heard, and peeked from the corners of her eyes at the other tables and saw the hostess weaving towards them with a tray in hand. I mean, it’s bad enough having a daughter show up for lunch in a suit and drink and talk like a. What? Like a drug addict, maybe, or a retarded person. I wonder if those really are 222s she takes? But Mother! Mother pretending she understands every word when she doesn’t know a picture from a postcard, and asking about people’s clothes, being mean about people’s clothes, and thinking she’s going to get me to take her to this business tonight – Well, she’s crazy. “No! It’s not possible, Mother. Now here’s your tea coming. D’you want a pork chop? Some chicken? It looks nice.”

Katherine accepted her drink with a nod and drank thirstily, “Would you bring me another one of these, please, when you come back. I haven’t even looked at the menu yet.”

“Katherine, don’t be silly!” Beatrice frowned disagreement and shook her head no at the hostess, “Have something to eat. Don’t keep the waitress standing around, order something. Mother, the chicken looks.”

“I’ll have an omelet and.”

“Mother! You don’t like eggs, for crying out loud! Have the chicken, or a por.”

“I know what I don’t like.” Tillie’s eyes flashed reproof at her daughter. “And I still have my teeth.” She turned calmly to the hostess, “I’ll have a little piece of rare roast beef, please, and some french-fried potatoes, with gravy on them, if I may. And I’ve changed my mind, young lady,” Tillie smoothly slid her cup and saucer to the centre of the table, “Would you bring me one of those nice whiskey-sour drinks that you have here. Do you still? Please. Leave the tea. I can at least drink a toast to my granddaughter’s triumph, eh?” And with an arching turn, she spoke distantly to Bea, “Someone ought to show a little appreciation.”

“Mother!” Bea’s voice cracked, “Katheri. oh. The chicken, please. mashed. oh, I need the Ladies. Excuse.” Her hands fluttering about her face, Beatrice made a dash for the washroom.

Tillie allowed herself to lean gracefully on the arm of her chair and smile after her daughter with grim affection, “We’re a sorry pair, Katherine, you and I.”

Unfolding her lips, Katherine said, “She does it to herself.” And thought, Damn her! She’s going to do that when I tell her about David.

It’s not meanness, Tillie thought, and with a gentle nodding turned to study her granddaughter. Exasperated, but not mean, either of us, not yet. She has big hands, uses them like flags. Bea sits on hers. Mine. Mine were as big, before they dried up. What did I ever do with them? Hold a man? Oh, dry up! Bea’s catechism – Why don’t you just dry up? The skin goes first and she thinks the mind goes with it. Dry up! Okay, I used them to make jelly. “Oh yes, Bea pushes and we pull, she does it to herself. It seems you and I are always going the other way and she gets caught with her head in the fence. She’s ornery that way.” Tillie sipped a full breath, “You know I’m not going to be around for ever, and.”

“Ahh, Gran!”

“Never mind the testimonials, I’m not. And then what are you going to do when there’s only the two of you? She won’t fight, you know, she’ll say black is white instead. Are you going to pick each other off the fence? She wants to be nice, Katherine, you’re going to have to give her a hand. I don’t want to die before she says what she means.”

“I should go see she’s all right.”

“Oh, give her a minute to fix her face.” Tillie paused, “Even when your father left, she couldn’t be mad enough to tell that Bessie Everett what a mean piece of goods she was.”

“Bessie. what goods? What’re you talking about, Gran? What’s it got to do with my father? Bessie Ever. who?”

“Everett. No, now there I go. It’s your mother’s business. Forget I said it.”

Katherine’s eyebrows and voice rose with indignant humour, “You old.” she laughed, “gossip! Don’t you dare try to weasel your way out of what you just said! Who was Bessie Everett and what’s she got to do with my father?”

“No, now.” Tillie patted the air above the table, “We’d all be best to mind our own business.” She wanted the idea to have time to set.

“Gran!” Katherine was getting annoyed, “You know she won’t tell anything. They got married. I was born. He left. That’s it! No details, no reason, nothing!” A thought occurred to her, “I guess it must be my fault,” she said in a dying voice.

“Don’t be cunning, it makes your lips wrinkle. Here come our drinks. You make sure you have something to eat. Why don’t you go and get your mother? Be nice.” Tillie sat erect as the hostess reached the table, and spoke again as Katherine rose from her chair, “Tell her I said her nice chicken’ll be cold.”

KATHERINE & BEA

When Katherine followed her mother into the restaurant washroom, she made straight for the mirror wall above the basins and peered at the high line of her brow. Her tickling hairline felt like bugs, but she saw a glisten of sweat and patted that and tucked some escaped hairs back under her beret with a fingernail. One hair, possibly white, or was it the light? She set her teeth and pulled. “Mother?”

“Here, Katherine.” Bea’s small voice dingged around a steel-walled cubicle. “I’ll be right out.”

Katherine began rooting through her bag, pulling out eye-liner, some lip rouge, setting them on the tiled ledge before her reflection. “Mother.” she found a mean, black-bristled hairbrush and began tugging out dead hair, “.are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine.” A flushing, a minor struggle with the latch, and Beatrice emerged, tucking her waistband and smoothing her skirt, “Let’s forget about it.” She could see the line of her daughter’s jaw from the nape to the chin reflected in the glass. A fragile and demanding line, she thought. Had always thought.

“Mother.” Katherine’s chin rose in the glass to follow her mother’s approach behind her, “.who’s Bessie Everett?”

Beatrice held her breath and fingered the little round collar of her blouse, aware suddenly that Katherine, like Tillie, displayed her throat, called attention to it. They wear ties and brooches, pins and fancy collars and scarves and things like that. Beatrice pinched the loose skin that she kept hidden with her chin. They wave their necks, wag their wattles at the world. “Oh!” she gasped a breath, panic was making her silly. What was it that was wrong? “My purse! I’ve left my purse out there. Do you think it’s all right? I left it under my chair.” Her reflection bit its lips and patted at its hair. “Mother can’t be trusted to watch. you can’t expect her to notice. she’s so. Did she. D’you have a comb?”

“Oh, Lord!”Her fists pressed to the rim of a basin, Katherine bumped her forehead against the mirror, and her rage, ebbing down past a hysterical bubble laughing in her throat, came to rest in her belly, and burned.

“I need a comb, look at my hair.” Avoiding the spectacle in the mirror, Bea’s glance fell upon the hairbrush tumbled into the basin between Katherine’s rigid arms, “Is that all you’ve got?” She winced at the matted bristles, “My hair’s too fine for that.”

“Mother!”

“Really, you shouldn’t use that. It’s what’s so hard on your.”

“Bessie Everett.” A hissing sound.

“.hair.” Beatrice feared contempt could crush her collapsing into misery and tears. Here, here in a public washroom where anybody could walk in any minute and see her dissolved in frumpy tears. “She told you. That old. woman. She told you.”

“She didn’t tell me anything. She pretended it was an accident, her senile slip showing. It’s such a routine. She said it’s about. my Dad.” Solemnity fell about Katherine like a garment, “I have a right to know about it, Mother.”

Beatrice was rapidly losing ground, “An accident? You weren’t an accident.” She dug into her waistband and thumbed up her slip, “You know quite enough, all there is to know. That’s all in the past. It’s nothing. We’d better get out there before my purse gets walked off with,” and she turned for the door.

“Mother, David’s leaving.” Katherine spoke in a flat rush.

Beatrice stopped and trembled as a goose walked her grave, “Oh. Where? His job, do you mean?”

“ME! For Christ’s sake, he’s leaving me!” Hurt and fury fought a sob.

Beatrice hovered, one foot on its heel, unable to turn back, unwilling to go on, “Oh. .What have you been doing, that he’s decided to leave?”

“ME! I haven’t done.” Katherine stopped in astonishment and stared at her mother. I could kill her. Right here. I could drown her in the toilet. Bang her head with the seat and put the lid down. I could. “I want to know about my father and about this woman. And what do you mean, I wasn’t an accident?”

Something fell loose in Beatrice, perhaps the thought of her mother’s ‘accident’ allowed her to turn around and see her daughter standing in a man’s suit, David’s suit, her son-in-law’s suit; her daughter’s throat standing on a knot of striped silk rep in the ladies washroom. In Fran’s. “You were no accident.” She watched a vein in Katherine’s temple and thought it badly knotted, “She told people. Bessie Everett told people that I tricked your father into marrying me, that he didn’t want to, but that I tricked him and that was why he ran away as soon as my back was turned. When you were born.” Beatrice pinched her lip with her teeth and let it go, “You were a little early, is all.”

“You mean. Oh, God!” Katherine felt like a criminal, like a murderous, blundering fool, a mean and nasty bitch. She felt like. “Bastard!” she whispered.

“No! We were married.” Beatrice understood her daughter’s irritated headshake, “Oh, no, he wasn’t, no.” Curling and uncurling the fingers of each hand, her arms locked down her sides, Beatrice realized that she understood nothing of what was happening, that she could and would say things that would mean something later, if she could remember. If she allowed herself. “He was a good man, Katherine. It was. Well, I don’t know. I only knew him for a year. How much could I know?” She could feel her feet swelling, the soles growing hot in her shoes, “I don’t like to think about it. I’m not sure what I remember.” She felt rather than saw the trembling of her daughter, the big capable hands rising between them, rise and cross on the suited breast and grip the shoulder points with livid fingers. Her own hands scooped a little air before her, “But it wasn’t because of you, don’t you think that. He asked me to marry him. Out on the river. In the old green rowboat. We didn’t say ‘premature’ in those days, I don’t think. We said ‘early’. You were early.”

Katherine didn’t care about the meaning, one way or the other, of what her mother was saying, or wasn’t. She’d think about that later. Right now she wanted to know why, “I don’t care what you did. Why did he go?” She felt something was trying to escape through her crossed arms and pressed tighter.

“I don’t know if I ever did know, Katherine.” Beatrice blew a sigh and showed her empty hands, “He was. Well, he was from the bush, you know, he wasn’t easy with people. He was used to being alone. And then they put him in the War. And then he tried to make a living out of hunting and fishing, the things he knew how to do. They were the things he had to do. I don’t think, maybe, he could stand to make a business out of them.” She paused and gave her daughter a rueful smile, “Or maybe it was me,” lifted her shoulders, “I used to think it was me,” and dropped them, “I’ll never know.”
Katherine didn’t believe her, didn’t believe that there wasn’t a good reason, this Bessie, or some other woman, a secret sickness, a war wound even, something. There must be a mistake, something her mother had done, perhaps, something forgotten, something she didn’t know she had done. It had to be like that. It had to be.

Chapter 4

4

Anglican

Cowgirls

KATYA

Katya’s house looked strange in the city, perhaps because it persisted as a cottage, a little house, unashamed and self-sufficient in a neighbourhood dissolved into houses with decks. Framed into the top of an old bump of rock on the side of a rail line, the front drop to the street a tangle of moss and sapling and briar, it was hidden in the summer, and in winter the white painted porches melted into the snow.

To save herself the steep climb of the front steps, Katya trudged round the corner, up the alley next the rusting tracks, and shoved herself through the lilac hedge. The yard which she had planted and which Bena had left untouched could hide a half dozen Indians. Meadowsweet seeded with goldenrod, and blue bugloss crept around birch clumps and half-tumbled silver maple. Her linden, set in the centre, would one day shade the whole yard. Betony, mullein and blue aster crowded paths in tall grass. Elder and spirea advanced on the house.

In the back porch, Katya propped the bag of pears against her rubber boots, took a key from the pot of a stout old begonia curled over a table in the sun, and unlocked the door. The kitchen looked like a meal in the making, every inch deep with pots and plates and jars and spoons, a haphazard cleanliness dusted with flour and smeared with butter. Opening the refrigerator with one hand, Katya reached the kettle to the tap with the other. Coffee, and she needed a bite. Salty, she lifted out a big jar of herring, a piece of cheese. She turned the burner on under the kettle and went back to the porch to choose a ripe pear. Sweet, she took down butter from a cupboard, two and then two more puula from the breadbox, switched on the oven and slipped them in. She thought of her weight and pulled two of the buns out, licked cinnamon from her fingers, asked herself who cared and put them back in. The telephone rang.

BENA

Bena had given back Katya’s house with a snort of relief. She’d grown lean as the neighbourhood had dried under yards of crushed stone and cedar. She’d packed and wandered over by the ravine and found herself nine white rooms under a hairdresser clinging to the edge of Rosedale. She had clipped an extra coupon and furnished herself with a mattress, and with a chair and a table for each room.

Bena spent her day in the street. She used what the city possessed, pavements and tiles, shops, malls and galleries, museums, parks and boulevards, monuments, ghettos, lobbies, tunnels, restaurants, bars, paths, alleys and corners. She visited places, her swift downhill halting gait paused only for necessity at a counter, a cash-desk, and she would rear and wheel before the clerk or ticket-taker and be off before a door could shut.

She was seen, familiar, expected. She was greeted by Madame, for there was no doubt of her title to the van and train of her passage, she owned the air two yards before and two yards after, she wore the felts and lodens, the fleshy gold and savage cloisiné of an old, mad, horse-bound orthodoxy, her blood rich and thin from centuries of stirrup breeding lent dignity to her startled rolling eye, translucence to her trembling unsure hand. And she passed as a princess passes.

BENA & KATYA

“Katya! You will come, of course. I have tickets.” Bena was talking before Katya got the receiver to her ear; ‘tickets’, Bena believed in tickets, pieces of paper, pasteboard, plastic, believed in the apparent freedom of having a pass, Katya shuddered from the responsibility, and tingled in anticipation, Bena always had more than one ticket. “My friend has given them to me. They are for the picture gallery. There are hundreds, very many pictures, all made by one man, my friend says, and very nice even though I think he is an Englishman. An Englishman who made the pictures, not my friend, he is Canadian.”

“When, Bena?”

“Oh, always, Katya! He was born right here, from a family, an old one, though nothing here is old.”

“The Gallery, Bena. The pictures. When?”

“Ah hah! Today, this afternoon at four o’clock. You will come, we will meet in a restaurant for a drink of coffee.”

“So that you can flirt? No, no, Bena, in front of the Gallery, I’ll wait for you on a bench, on the end by the big sculpture. The Englishman is Blake, Bena. Was.”

“Oh, yes? Maybe you could wear something nice, Katya, and we will have coffee after.”

“I’m not in this competition, Bena, not the running jump, either. Your friend, your Canadian, what does he do?” Katya knew how to be Canadian, “Who does he work for?”

“He is a man of business, Katya.” A thick note of satisfaction honeyed Bena’s throat.

George Preston lived with his head down. He wasn’t young at seventy-five, hair thistledown, face a map, wrists mottled, waist locked, he’d worn pants on the beach for thirty years and kept his feet covered.

“A man of business, Bena?” Katya’s voice raised an eyebrow. One of Bena’s friends had imported religious artifacts, a gift of a seashell shrine crumbled into pot drainage beside the begonia in Katya’s porch. “Trinkets and trade goods?”

George was so well disguised that no one, not family, not colleagues, or friends considered for a moment that this safe, smiling George Preston was anything other than what he appeared to be.

“The best business, Katya.”

Born into cushioned pews, mahogany boat decks and occasional evening dress, coloured in the neutral tones best reflected in Waterford and quiet pieces of sterling, George only looked up once.

It was the War that made George look up. He had flown a Spitfire as duty, gotten drunk as a hero, and spent enough hours cocooned in the air to distinguish a pattern. Too many people wanted for too long, lacked a living and pride; the few who had it saw a way to get more, heaped humiliation like dung until heat and rot loosed a rich, fetid stream that burnt the ground.

George came home to the University, to the law and to finance just as intended. Head down, he became what he was expected to be, but unlike most of his fellows he knew what that was.

“Broadloom carpeting! Wholesale.” There had been a low-cost accident insurance salesman. The accidents were unlikely to happen even to Bena.

“A gentleman who does the very most conservative of business, Katya.” Pride was keeping her temper.

“Oh, Bena. Not a pimp.”

“Perhaps you could wear this afternoon, Katya, a nice skirt. And a blouse.”

“Perhaps rubber boots and a straw hat! A blanket and feathers!” Bena knew an Ojibwa parole officer. She claimed a mystic relationship, noble savages, overrun aristocrats. He was grateful she wasn’t an anthropology major.

“Katya! You will not meet my friend!”

“Oh, now, I didn’t mean it. I was teasing. You aren’t angry. They’re your friends.”

“You are a dangerous woman, Katya. You are not always nice.”

“That’s true, I’m sorry. I try to be nice, but I’ve had a shock. Therapy, actually. No, now there I go again, sorry. The old woman by the park wasn’t in her chair.” Katya was suddenly breathless.

There was a longish pause before Bena said, “The pen of my aunt is on the. Katya.” another long pause, “I used to think that you had learned a different English language, a dialect, the grammar is Finnish, maybe, you arrived in a different airport, came by water, or walked, maybe. But it is better now to tell you what I think.” Bena was in the middle of a deep breath when Katya stopped her.

“Is your friend married?”

GEORGE

Old boarding school girls can move boats, compete in mixed doubles and, often enough, learn to recognize a straight flush. Companionship is essential to a girl of small means with an end in view and the pretty, dark Elizabeth with the red bow of a mouth made certain she had several best friends.

George had been intended as a weekend date for Elizabeth’s friend Bunny’s sister, a long weekend of sailing and picnicking and groping on verandahs. Cold rain confined the young men to cards in the boathouse; Bunny’s parents went to bed with digestive biscuits and books; Bunny’s sister got poison ivy rash from her facecloth and Elizabeth double-dared Bunny herself to throw on a slicker and go down to learn poker.

“Does he have a wife, Bena?”

George had determined to be childless, conceded himself unsuitable for women to whom continuity was recently a patriotic duty and always a dynastic imperative, and stoically practised bachelorhood. He was hunched over two pair and a highball when he saw the hot eyes, the selfish cupid mouth. He could control that. Do the world a favour and put a rope on her. He might never know quiet again, but he wouldn’t have to look silly in a big house alone, grow old with virgins in reception lines and drown in a punchbowl.

George shifted on the white ring of the life preserver that eased his discomfort and drew to a tight, full house. He finished his drink and took Elizabeth behind the boat house under a dripping black hemlock.

“He has a wife, Katya, yes.” Bena was exasperated, she had met George drinking coffee against the damp in a fake rathskeller in an underground mall, she didn’t want to bear his children. “You’re so conventional, Katya. For a crazy person. Perhaps you have a skirt with a jacket that matches. It is a good thing to look nice, Katya.”

“Four o’clock, then. On the corner in front of the Gallery, the bench next to the Moore.”

“Moor?”

“The big bronze sculpture is a Moore.”

“Ahh. A Moor! That is what it is?”

“Goodbye, Bena.”

“A nice blouse.”

DAVID

David Bailey really wished he hadn’t let Jane read his I Ching after the cheese gnocchi last night. She’d misinterpreted his resistance and told him to stop acting like some old bush-hippie; her spiritual stomach didn’t mind, it knew she couldn’t do decent Chinese in the microwave. It wasn’t that, David actually liked having his fortune told, it tickled his scalp with the pleasure of a barber’s hands. “Sorta like God’s hands with a pair of scissors at your ear,” he had said, resisting Jane’s tug to the goatskin hearth rug. “Didn’t one of the Fates carry scissors? To snip your thread?”

“That’s myth, this’s real.” Jane said, punching him behind the knee to bring him down. “Get out your coins.”

David extracted the three George VI dimes which were always in the right hand pocket of any pants he wore, along with his silver penknife. “D’you suppose there’s a difference?” He picked at the goat hair, “Whether your first haircut was snipped by a man or a woman. Somebody should do a paper on that.” David was addicted to mental essays which never made it to paper. It was his passion to explain the world to itself from a mountain top; contemplation, speculation, Papal Bull. “You’d have your Sharp Object trauma, and your Samson trauma, if you had Sunday School soon enough, and you’d get your Isaac trauma, if your Dad did the cutting. There’d be a built-in variant there, circumcised versus foreskin.”

Jane refused to be side-tracked by dirty talk, she was a long way from Chatham by way of a Perth County commune and pre-med at Western, to Gynecology at Women’s College Hospital, and she believed very much in casting the bones. The Ching came first, then she’d consider the sexy bits. She had poised her plastic bamboo ballpoint over the pad of rice paper and told him to start tossing.

Right now, David was tossing balled socks and underwear into his old boyscout dufflebag, clearing the one drawer of four in the bedroom bureau that Katherine had ever allowed him. Actually, she’d originally let him have two drawers, but when she began encroaching on his t-shirts, he’d found it prudent to retreat and hide the two or three she hadn’t yet appropriated under his boxers and yellowed jockeys. Frowning, concentrating hard on when he’d last seen his dark pin-stripe, David knew it couldn’t be at the cleaners because it had only ever been there twice in its life. And he certainly hadn’t worn it somewhere and come home in a barrel, he didn’t have that kind of life, even if he liked the idea. Coming home once from cub camp with somebody else’s underpants, the fear in his father’s face had nipped loose tendencies in the bud. So, where was the suit? The Ching had mentioned loss.

Katherine wouldn’t dare give it to the Sally Ann, she knew how much it mattered. Didn’t she? And besides, if she’d stooped to charity, or worse, thrown it away, she’d have chucked his old camel sport coat and his Tom Jones shirt. She hated them. But he had crammed them already into a garment bag. Even though they were past wearing, they held memories of innocence and a couple of fantastic lays. So, where was the suit?

The trouble with David’s fortune was that throwing his three dead Georges never seemed to move the universe. Tail-lights flashed – Warning! Hubris! Warning! Pride before a Fall! Warning! – but the peony phrases of the Ching sounded a lot like ‘pin-steps’, ‘baby-steps’, ‘Mother-may-I’, and although he was promised the shining throne and the pink-petalled princess in the end, they invariably glimmered and waved hankies from the far side of an eggshell bridge. David imagined his karma looked like Woolworth’s fruit cake, beige and thin in the nuts.

He closed his empty bureau drawer, checked for the fourth time to make sure the suit hadn’t slipped into the rubble on the closet floor, poked and toppled heaps of Katherine’s clothing and worked himself up to irate frustration. She couldn’t have worn the damned thing! Could she? He mightn’t be so sure if she were out on a midnight crawl, she had a party persona that crossed Queen of the Gypsies with Clint Eastwood and she tended to bleed the line between dress and costume. But not to lunch at Fran’s with Bea and Tillie! Unless her sense of decorum had finally cracked. David hoped not, for Bea’s sake, but then, he thought with the beginnings of a grin, Katherine in full melt-down would be a sight to see.
He checked his watch. According to what Katherine had told him yesterday, bitching in detail, she’d be meeting Bea and Tillie right about now. If he hurried, taking what was packed and leaving bathroom things for later, he could taxi the bags up to his new place and get over to Fran’s before they finished. The telephone rang.

Chapter 5

5

Anglican

Cowgirls

KATHERINE & BEA

In the porcelain silence of the restaurant washroom, Katherine’s fingers dug and worried at the knuckles of her shoulders. She watched her mother, looking for cracks, “So, this Bessie person, she really didn’t have anything to do with my father?”

Beatrice heard the insinuation and refused it house room, “No, no, she was a local girl, off a farm, but she’d been away. She didn’t even know him.”

Katherine honestly believed that her mother would be better off knowing the truth, “Then why did he leave?”

Beatrice was growing impatient and had no intention of letting herself go in a public washroom, “I don’t know, Katherine. It’s just one of those things.”

Katherine glared with disbelief and mockingly picked up the tune, “Just one of those crazy things? A fabulous fling? A trip to the moon on gos.”

“That’s enough, Katherine!” Bea’s lips pursed, “I said it was one of those things, and it can’t be changed. Nobody likes a smart-alec.”

Her eyes rolling with exasperation, Katherine tried a therapeutic tone, “Mother, even if this Bessie had nothing to do with it, there has to have been a real reason. Men don’t just get up and walk off.”

Condescension from her own daughter was the last straw, Beatrice wanted to slap her. She gave up being nice, “Why is David leaving?” and watched for a minute in silence as Katherine winced, as her face crumpled, as her head drooped and began to heave with sobs over her crossed arms. Bea sucked at her teeth a moment longer, “Now, don’t carry on like that, you’ll look a mess.” She heard an intake of breath and carried on herself, “I don’t know why your father left, Katherine. I don’t know why men wander off, but they do. Maybe once they’ve got a job and a wife and a house and a baby. maybe they’re as bored as the rest of us. They don’t know what to do with themselves and off they go looking.” She looked thoughtful and sighed, “I guess if your father was that bored at the start, he wouldn’t have been much of a treat around the house.”

She placed a hand gently on the cross of Katherine’s wrists, “I’m not sure there’s anything you can do about it, honey.” Her face softly curled into a wry smile, “If you look around at the ones who stay, there’s not much to choose from, not many you’d want to be next to, anyway.”

Katherine’s head bobbed and a sniff turned into a snort, her face came up red and leaking, her lips bunched against a wail. Her nostrils quivered and dripped with tears which she brushed with the tips of her painted nails. She looked hard at her mother and smiled ruefully, “Thanks,” she said, “We’d better get out there before Gran gets loaded on whiskey-sours.” She turned to the mirror wall and fumbled for her eye-liner.

“Oh!” Bea straightened her shoulders, tugged at her cardigan, patted her skirt, “My purse, yes.” She checked the mirror, dabbed the corners of her lipsticked mouth with her tongue, blinked rapidly and patted her hair with both hands. She watched Katherine pick up the hairbrush and wave it uncertainly at the cloth of her beret. “That’s what’s so hard on your hair. You really should carry a comb. I think David’s too nice to lose.” She turned and marched for the door, “Don’t forget your make-up.”

DAVID

“I’m looking for a trio. Female.” David looked down into the admiring brown eyes in the brown face and gave an answering grin, “They’re not sisters and they can’t sing. More like MacBeth. Or the Stooges.” Both smiles popped into laughter. David stretched himself over her to scan the room.

Her face uptilted, she allowed her eyes to slip down, and then pausing on a long breath, as he came to a stop, she moved from beneath him. With a toss of her pumpkins, she said, “I’ll bring you a drink.”

“Coffee.”

“Whiskey.”

“You’re right.”

BEA & TILLIE

“There’s nothing you and I can do about it, Bea. I’m your mother, sit down and let me forgive you.” Tillie leaned to pat her daughter’s chair, “What did you do with Katherine?”

Beatrice stared at her mother. She seemed to hear a rending crash, as of cars in collision, and she imagined Tillie sailing, unbelted, through shattering glass, “An accident, Mother?” she asked in a carefully controlled voice, and then yelped as something struck her heel.

Tillie glanced at the chrome teapot skittering on the floor, a spatula slithered out of the kitchen door, “Either that, or a revolution in Fran’s kitchen. You’d better sit in case your chicken’s on its way, you don’t want it in the back of the head.”

Bea wanted to bury her head in her hands and melt into the silence of a winter night, instead, she bent to check that her purse was under the chair, sat, and drained her old-fashioned to the fruit. “Mother,” she tried for a confidential tone, “Mother, she says David’s leaving her.”

“Yes.”

“She told you?” Bea couldn’t keep the annoyance out of her voice. She was, after all, the girl’s mother, she should know these things first. It wasn’t fair if Katherine had been practising, “She told you?”

“I guessed.” Tillie was bland, satisfaction was a rich diet at her age. “I don’t expect she knows why?” She made it a question for Bea’s sake.

“She says. David!” Bea’s hand convulsively clasped her mother’s where it lay on the tablecloth, “What on earth.?”

KATHERINE & BEA
& TILLIE & DAVID

Half out of the door behind her mother, Katherine had remembered the make-up, returned, and hesitated before the mirror. Her eyes looked bewildered. She gave her head a slight shake and felt the vodka slosh behind her face. Not much point to paint, she thought, and watched her mouth twist a smile. She hoped that was irony. The eye-liner was in the basin where she’d dropped it. There has to be somebody else. If he’d tell me. If he’d just tell me what she does. Katherine winced and screwed her eyes shut on tears. If he’d tell me. I’d do that.

Fumbling the make-up back into her bag on the way to the table, Katherine collided with the back of a tall, attractive man whose jeans. “Umm. Excuse. David! What the hell’re you doing here?”

Raising both brows, David’s blue eyes examined his suit. His big square hands patted Katherine on the lapels, and he turned to the table with a smile, “Ladies, ladies. You’re looking as lovely as ever, Tillie.” He stretched and landed a kiss on her ear, and looked at Beatrice, “and you are.”

“Surprised to see you!” Bea snatched her hand back from Tillie, and bridling, folded it with the other on the edge of the table.

“Marty called.” David pointed Katherine at her chair with a touch on the shoulders, and excusing a chair from the next table, sat himself opposite Beatrice, “How’s the car, Bea? Wanta sell it?”

“No, thank you.” Bea’s two-tone blue and white ’55 Ford Niagara was a coveted car. “You couldn’t afford to run it. I can’t afford to run it.”

David acknowledged the truth with a grin, “I couldn’t afford to park it in this town. You know they’re making new wide white-walls again. Saw them in.”

“David!” Katherine pulled on an elbow and leaned into his face, “What d’you mean Marty call. Oh, Jesus! He’s supposed to be here. Shit! I completely forgot. How could I. Where did he call? Why did he call you? What’s wrong? He’s supposed to be hanging the picture and. Oh, God!” She lurched up from her chair, “What’s happened? Jesus! Where is he?” Suspicion of disaster slammed her napkin and bangles onto the table. Bea’s folded hands took the shock. “I knew I shouldn’t have let somebody else do it!” Katherine moved to grab up her bag, “Why do I always have to.” David held and tugged gently on the tail of the blue pin-stripes.

“Sit, Katherine, sit. Marty’s fine. It’s all fine. Sit. Marty called.” He held on until her bottom touched the chair, “.at the house. I was there. Looking for my suit, as a matter of fact. You know that’s my best tie. Never mind. Marty’s fine. but.”

“I knew there was something!” Katherine snatched at her drink.

“Katherine, please.” Beatrice patted the tablecloth.

“I know it sounds ridiculous, but they wouldn’t let him use permanent fixtures to hang the picture with.”

“What the fu.”

“Fortunately,” David covered and touched a finger to her lips, “Marty found some rope and says he’s got the thing up and tied off to some balcony, or something. Or he says he can, anyway. It’s fine, he’s handling it. But he hasn’t got time to get here, said he’ll see us tonight.” David leaned as a brown arm passed over his shoulder to set a tumbler of ice, then a brimming shot-glass before him. He turned his attention, “Thank you,” to the hostess at his elbow, “Very right. Thank you.”

“Rope!” Terror sucked the blood from Katherine’s head as David turned from her; she felt as much as saw the magic of his drink appearing unasked, and the returning flood beaded hotly on her brow.

“Now, hush, Katherine.” Beatrice was appalled, the situation was getting out of hand, “David,” she recalled his attention, gave a brief smile to the hostess, and extended one hand to hold down the air over the table, “Just calm down. There’s no need for any of this.” She glanced up again at the unmoved hostess, “Thank you, Miss. I think we’re ready to eat, if you’ll just. Thank you.”

“Rope! What the.”

“That’ll do, Katherine!”

“Mother! For God’s sake! I’m being hung on a wall with ropes!”

“Just one.” David neatly drowned his ice in whiskey. “Marty says he can do it with just one at the middle, says it’ll balance okay.”

“A rope. Fine. By the neck until dead!” Katherine buried her head in her hands.

“Will you stop carrying on!” Bea slapped the tablecloth. “As long as it’s up. Martin will do a nice job, I’m sure.”

“Screw Martin!”

“Katherine?”

“Don’t be smart, David!”

“Anyway, that’s why I’m here. He caught me just as I was going out the door and.”

“Lucky him, he’s doing better than I am.” Katherine’s mouth turned down, ready to quiver.

David held her eyes with a smile, “.and I had a dream, a vision of ladies. Ladies, Katherine. Three Graces awash in a sea of white wine and chef salad, three queens and no knave. So I caught a cab.” David slowly wagged his head, “And it’s a sorry sight, the three of you tossing off the cocktails, loaded for bear. I think maybe I oughta mosey before you bust up the saloon.” He swiped up his glass and banged the ice to his nose, “What d’you think, Miss Tillie?”

“Nick Nolte’d make a good cowboy, if he’d lose some weight. You’ve caught us red-handed with our irons in each other’s fire, Marshal.” Tillie saluted David with her glass, “Would you like my maraschino?”

KATHERINE & DAVID

David Bailey had stood Katherine McAlpine up against the roses in Tillie Sutherland’s back garden and slipped a ring on her finger. Katherine would rather have had Bea’s yard up in Strawbridge, an acre of poppy and lily bending to the water of the Straw. The shifts of linen, old polished taffetas, thin new silks, yards of ribbon and lace, cut stone and glass gem, grandfathers’ watchchains, wire gold and silver filigree, the scarves, the hats, the rediscovered reticules, the dogs, the drunks and the obvious children all would have spilled harmlessly over Bea’s lawn of rock and devil’s paintbrush.

But Strawbridge was inconvenient, a bridge too far from everywhere, and though it would have given Beatrice enormous satisfaction to have the village as witness, she didn’t care to have it run on any longer than it should, and there weren’t enough overnight beds. So, Tillie’s trim borders, her arbour and views on an old suburban edge of the city had taken the beating.

Bea had fussed over announcements, paid for tissue inserts, studied Chatelaine. She had cleaned Tillie’s house from which Tillie was banned for running her finger along a picture rail after a dusting. Tillie sat under the pink-climber, drinking tea and reading a biography of Emily Dickinson, quite pleased with herself.

The Reverend Robert Ross, and his wife Anna, had been asked down as old friends for the occasion. He had christened and catechized Katherine; had heard about art and encouraged her pictures; had insisted, to Bea’s relief, on his right to officiate. He was wonderfully kind with Beatrice, but laughed and teased Tillie, telling old secrets. Anna, pale and dry on a minister’s salary and a manse with mice, felt out of place in a brown shirtwaist. Her offer of white triangles, tinned salmon and no crusts, looked so unhappy among the heavy dark breads, thick salads, lumpy queer cheeses and rich thin meats, that she agreed with Beatrice to rewrap them and save them for an afterwards snack.

Conceded by Katherine, invited by Bea, the Lettie Girls arrived in matching suits of grey seersucker. They had followed the Rosses at an unsafe speed all the way from Strawbridge, and had taken a side-trip around Tillie’s neighbourhood to remember that it wasn’t what it had been. They changed in Tillie’s bedroom, into matching dresses of pearl silk and Velma sent Vera back to the bathroom mirror to get her rouge right. Their crystal bowl full of berries was elegant with cream.

It went off as a wedding, though the groom had wakened with the bride and took brandy in his coffee. The bride wore garnet satin, but her new blue garters held up a favourite pair of net stockings, and she stood in her mother’s shoes. Reverend Ross read some vows and the band favoured bluegrass. The Letties drank tea and were confused by the fiddler’s eye, until the groom explained he was a minister’s son and wasn’t it sad about his blindness. It was tatty and smart and everyone behaved as everyone expected.

KATHERINE & BEA
& TILLIE & DAVID

He’s leaving and Katherine doesn’t know how to stop him. Why did he marry her, Tillie wondered, crush my portulaca borders, crack my birdbath? And I suppose she doesn’t even know why. Or won’t believe it. She’ll know it’s another woman. She’ll know he doesn’t love her any more. God knows she’d do anything to keep him. God knows it’s not her fault. The poor child. He’s here, isn’t he?

Her maraschino! Beatrice was shocked. Her mother was. She couldn’t be drunk on one drink, could she? She was. Bea felt a boot in the ribs. That woman was a common. flirt! The armholes of Bea’s blouse seemed to have shrunk. D’you suppose she’s always been? Oh, God, Bea drooped, it’s come to this. They drink and they fight and now they’re going to say things and chase after men. I can’t take it. I just can’t take it. She perked up at the sight of the hostess with plates.

David had no intention of leaving. He ordered corned beef and eggs.

Katherine gagged and considered crying. Hash and eggs had been for a time a lazy-day ritual, David had the knack of poaching, Katherine did toast. She tried to remember when and why that had changed. “I’ll have the cauliflower quiche and the.” The noise David made puckering his mouth stalled her. Was that when things went wrong? Quiche? Why hadn’t she noticed that? “Unh. Is it fresh?” It was a stupid question, but she needed some idea. Brown eyes rolled and the hostess shifted weight. “No, never mind, then,” Katherine put a hand on the back of David’s chair, “I’ll have what he’s having, thank you.”

Tillie thought her roast beef a bit rubbery, the pretense to a rare joint on the sideboard suffered from slabs in a microwave, but she intended to finish it, for Bea’s sake. She watched her daughter prepare herself denture-conscious bites of chicken, skin safely at the edge of the plate. Poor Beatrice! Tillie allowed the flow of old sorrow to pass unbridged. She invests so much in fairness. ‘Goods satisfactory, or money refunded.’ Succoured and suckered for shopping Eaton’s. She can’t refuse David, but the last thing she wants back is Katherine. Out on approval and back on the rack, like mother, like daughter. Oh, dear, it’ll break her heart again. “You know,” Tillie pierced a french fry with her fork, “I think the gravy’s from yesterday’s pork, look at the colour.” She lifted her gaze above their bent heads, “I think I might just like to come to your little do tonight, Katherine.”

Katherine wasn’t sure what she’d heard, “Gran?”

Bea was, “No! Now don’t be silly, Mother. You’ll be all played out by the time we get you home from here.”

“You just don’t tell me!” Tillie stabbed and pointed her last bite of beef at her daughter, “If I have a lie-down beforehand, I could manage it very well, thank you.”

“Oh, Gran! Wonderful!” Katherine was shining with excitement, “Look, David’ll come pick you up, won’t.”

“No, your mother will bring us.”

“Why don’t you come to the house and have dinner with.”

“No! Now, Mother, Katherine, this.”

“We’ll come for coffee. About seven?”

Bea threw her last flag, “You’ll have an attack!”

Tillie ignored it, “Perhaps David knows how to make a whiskey-sour?”

“I’ll lay in a fresh bottle of cherries.”
“That’s the stuff then! I’ll just hunt out some glad rags and we’ll go have a look at what this girl’s got to show.”

Chapter 6

6

Anglican Cowgirls

MAUDE & KATYA

Crabapples! What the hell am I supposed to do with crabapples? Tie your belly in knots, useless things.

Maude wished she had the stomach for Elizabeth’s party. I’d be better off a cow, a stomach for dinner, one for drinks, one for storage and one for the godawful boredom of a group of us getting together. Best I can do is eat, drink and ruminate. No stomach for the crap.

She had snatched into her old cardigan, buttoning to the top, knotted the red scarf at her throat with a curtsy to the tea kettle, and marched out the kitchen door to the yard, to her chair.

Her foot poked at the plastic bag sprawled by the chair leg and a stray whip of wind snapped up past her knees. Damn! She pinned the skirt of her dress between her knees. Crabapples. What a bore. She looked overhead at the white arbour. Her own idea, hope really, that the abandoned plastic bag was a drug stash, drop, whatever, had been much more fun. hard men in narrow suits, boats without running lights off the coast of. France? Florida? Wherever.

Maude lowered herself into the garden chair, fists in sweater pockets, and sipped at the cold air, shuddering until the sun’s heat picked out the line of her hair. She did wish she had the kind of energy that would take her to Elizabeth’s reception, her little culture do. How hard can it be to look up at a picture, have a few drinks, maybe chat up old George? It’s just not something I can manage alone anymore. She rubbed her nose tingling with cold. Set to kiss a fool, I could almost miss Harry. Harry’d shake hands with a corpse.

Harry had talked accounts with widows at wakes and Maude had finally abandoned him in Deep River when home had become a bathroom between clubs, and when he had tried to relieve her of the distillery stock he had married her for in the first place. If the silly bugger were alive tonight, he’d be front and centre in a fresh haircut and shoeshine, smearing Lizzie’s makeup and glad-handing corporate suits at George’s elbow.

Give over, Maudlin, it doesn’t do to bad-mouth the passed-over. And that he was. Oh, bad! She winced, for Harry had been backed over by a drunken Lion escaping a Jamboree. You should be spanked! Go in and get yourself a book, raise the tone around here. Maude took her hands from her pockets to push out of the chair, and there was that woman again on the edge of the yard.

The black rubber boots with the brick red soles might have been more obvious, if it weren’t for the dress pattern, bold enough to hold down a sofa. The woman dangled a string bag from one hand and her shoulders were wrapped in what might well be a car rug worked with a pattern of magenta. Maude squinted. Horses? Horns. Deer? Bringing Maude to a conclusion, “You aren’t Italian.”

“No. Finnish.”

“Finish what?” Maude’s fingers tightened on the chair arms.

Seeing the fingers curl on the white wood, Katya thought for a moment that she had stepped into a snake-pit, but running the words again in her head, she heard the problem and smiled, “Finnish. From Finland. I left a long time ago, but,” she looked down at the length of her dress, “I like the cloth. It takes a lot of colour against all that snow.”

Maude grunted, “Foreign used to mean the Irish linen room at Eaton’s.” She relaxed back into her chair and recognized the figures woven into the heavy shawl, “Reindeer. Pushing the season a bit, aren’t you?” She glanced at the shiny black and red rubber, “I thought Finns wore felt boots. You going dancing?”

Katya’s smile stayed fixed to her lips as she studied the woman’s eyes. The years of passing by, the quick glimpses, had revealed nothing but that she was alone. The eyes held. Not crazy, but possibly nasty. “The boots are for revenge. I have a friend, a woman who makes remarks about my clothes,” Katya paused and ran her eye over the woman’s cardigan, found a moth-hole and met her gaze, “she wants me to look respectable – Wear a nice skirt! You should have maybe a jacket to match – like the preacher’s wife. I’m fed up with her. She thinks she’s a princess, or something.”

“She Finnish?”

“Hungarian.”

“They’re all princesses.” Maude broke into a grin, nothing wrong with this woman, “The Russians took it all, of course.”

“Oh, huge estates, herds of horses!” Katya swept her arm with the imagined weight of Bena’s bangles.

“Makes you wonder how the peasant got in all that hay by himself.”

Katya laughed, “The Imperial Hungarian Gypsy is in for a surprise.” She stomped the heels of her boots, “These are Canadian content. I’m meeting her at the Art Gallery. With any luck she’ll abandon me and I can go look at the Pissarros.”

Maude approved. She imagined herself wearing rubber boots into the foyer of the Imperial Trust, clomping up to Elizabeth with a string bag in one hand, cocktail in the other, watching her sister’s nose dislocate with horror. She offered her hand, “I’m Maude Matthew.”

“Katya Saarila.” The grip was firm and held through the length of a smile.

“I’ve seen you a lot, you and your bags.”

“Yes.” Katya felt herself blush and pointed to the spilling crabapples, “Those are from the park. They’re good, not many bruises and no worms. The jelly’s nice, but some people don’t have the patience. I’ll take them back, if you don’t want them.”

“What made you think I’d want them?”

“I. Well, I’m not sure. I’ve seen you out. Sitting. That’s. And I thought.” Katya pulled at her shawl and felt foolish, she couldn’t very well tell this Maude Matthew that she’d feared the worst, that the bag of apples had been an offering, “I thought. Well, I don’t know. I gathered them. And. and I had some pears. There’s a house three blocks up and over where they don’t care, the pears’d rot on the ground. There’re more yet, a few days, they’ll be down. I filled a bag and then Bena. She’s the one, the princess. she found me and we had coffee in a restaurant. That Swiss place next to the Royal Bank. I don’t like the place, but it’s hard to say no to Bena. She made a traffic jam for an excuse, but she doesn’t listen very well. And I went to the park for the apples and there was one of those mothers,” Katya wagged her head back toward the street, “With a baby, her boy, and she was rude because I had all my bags.” Katya stopped and made herself look at Maude Matthew, “And you weren’t in your chair, and I thought something must be wrong, but I didn’t want to. you know. So I left the bag. I thought it.” She trailed off in embarrassment, “I’ll take them back.”

Maude was uncomfortable. She was well accustomed to Elizabeth’s solicitous nagging, but this was a basic stranger who, oddly enough, seemed to have noticed her. “What did you think was wrong?”

“Ohh!” Katya could feel the temperature rise in her rubber boots, “I don’t know. Maybe a button had come loose, on your dress, and you had to sew it. Or the telephone, I thought of that, someone called. Or your kettle might be slow. or. I thought you’d be here!”

At mention of the kettle, Maude skipped a breath in panic. Finding the kettle full of milk and wearing her scarf in the refrigerator had given her pause, no matter if she could laugh it off to Elizabeth. She gave Katya a dry look, “Or dead from a slip in the bath, eh, or down the cellar steps, or the working half of me stiff with a stroke. Or. You’re warm with the kettle. Would you like a cup of coffee, by the way? Or tea? I could make us a cup.”

“Well.” Katya looked at her wristwatch, “I gave myself time to walk. I’m to meet Bena at four. I suppose. I’d like it very much, yes.”

“Which?”

“Coffee, please.”

“You’re going to see the Blakes?”

“Yes. Someone, her latest man, gave Bena tickets. He’s too important to go. She says. I’d guess he’s afraid to be seen with her. It’s hard not to be seen when you’re with Bena. I’m not that fussy about Blake, but I like to look at pictures and she wasn’t going to let me say no. She doesn’t know Blake from Bauhaus, but it’s an excuse to dress up. Her friend’s generous with the tickets and smart enough to stay home.”

“Me too.” Maude heaved herself from the chair and indicated the back door with a wave of the hand, “Let’s go in.” And led the way.

Katya looked at the empty counters, the bare table, the clean white shallow sink, and looked back at the woman lifting a kettle from the stove. She should weigh eighty-two pounds, wear a dry hanky tucked in her sleeve and glare at my fingernails; instead she’s round, damp and giving me coffee. These people aren’t what they used to be.

“My sister’s been bothering me to go,” Maude was rinsing and filling the kettle from the tap and turning, waved Katya to a chair at the table, “but I said no. Blake! The man masturbated paint.” She paused to see if this woman minded, saw watchful eyes, a curving lip held firm, a pair of red rubber soles tipped comfortably on their heels between table legs, and set the kettle on the stove. “She’s on a committee. My sister is. Every committee. My sister the Chair. A cultural butterfly. Moth! She chews at my clothes like your friend. Considers herself responsible for all and every drip of paint on the walls of the a.g.o. and anywhere else she can flog her ego and her husband’s job. No children. Me either, we’re the dried up udders of an old herd, but I just chew quietly, Lizzie has to give birth. Blake’s her latest calf.”

Maude set the mugs on the table, “It’ll be a minute. D’you have children?” and returning, took a can of coffee and a filter from a cupboard shelf.

“A son!” Katya’s voice was happy with relief, she’d feared instant coffee, “A boy. A man, now, of course.”

Maude heard the enthusiasm and hesitated with the filter cone, oh dear, here we go, me and my mouth. “Wonderful to you, is he?” She tried to sound bland and heard only sarcasm. “D’you like muffins?”

“Yes, but don’t go to any bother.” Katya took a deep breath and spoke without quite knowing why, “He’s something of a twit, really. I’m afraid I don’t like him.”

Something in the voice, pain perhaps, prevented Maude from turning to the table. “Store-bought, but let me check and see what they’re wearing,” she opened a drawer and peered into a bag, “Just raisins. Things happen,” she glanced at the rubber boots, “I do things. sometimes I say things. I get a little absent. Harmless. Unless somebody else is paying attention.”

“He lives in Finland. He builds beautiful boats. Fishing boats, just like they’ve always been built, but he struggles with God. It’s tiresome. God doesn’t fight. He is my son and I honour that, but I don’t want him near me.”

“I have a sister.” Maude swung gently from the sink, “Relations deserve points for perseverance. It encourages them. I try not to judge mutts when I can help it. You’re brave to see the choice and forgiven in the choosing. And then you live with it. Have a muffin.” Maude flipped the bag of muffins onto the table and opened the fridge for butter. “D’you take milk?”

“No. I.”

“Good. I’m out.”

KATHERINE & BEA
& TILLIE & DAVID

Beatrice picked up the cheque. There wasn’t a real objection from the others. Tillie murmured and subsided in ritual protest, she never carried money anyway. Katherine’s hand went to her bag, but she remembered too well that lunch had been her mother’s idea and restrained herself. Bea asked David what the tip should be and he insisted on paying that, at least, which she had known he would. She counted out the dollars with enough concentration to raise Katherine’s blood pressure.

Busy with the end-of-lunch clean up, the hostess missed most of the conversation, but none of the meaning, as Bea groped under her chair for her purse, as David glanced at the bill and laid money on the tray, as Katherine snatched at it and vigorously shook her head, claiming he was too generous considering that she had had to yell and wave for service and that the ashtray hadn’t been emptied nearly often enough. David offered to let her take care of the tip, but she said no, no, go ahead, spoil the help, it wouldn’t matter to her, she never came here anyway. That much the hostess heard, straightening knives at the next table. She fingered a pin fastened to her green lapel. She despised the smiling mouth and Have A Nice Day, but it came with the polyester and the turkey. She would have kept her distance, but that cheap, noisy, overdressed. hooker! She remembered the soft molar with the temporary filling and made her jaw relax.

She thanked Beatrice, hoping that everything had proven satisfactory; for Tillie she made the little bow she had been taught to make to her own grandmother. David was so. inviting, and the laughter in his eyes so tickled her – she touched the filling with her tongue – that the hated smiling pin came into her hand and she reached out at Katherine, “I think perhaps that you have lost this?”

MAUDE & KATYA

“That’ll be my sister, her nails must be dry,” Maude finished refilling Katya’s coffee cup, set the pot back on the burner and went to the ringing telephone.

“Liz, dear, hello. Can’t talk now, dear, I’ve company. Your hair looks nice. Bye.”

“Because it always looks nice. No, no one you know. No. No. None of your business, dear.”

“No, don’t bother then, either. No, I’m just not up to going tonight. Fine. Of course I’m taking them, every pill in the house and washing them down with gin! Oh, for pete’s sake, it’s a joke, Elizabeth. I’m just not up to your kind of party magic, my cheeks are past it, smiling like a butcher at a cattle show. Grim fun, I’m too old, dear.”

“Don’t bother to call again ’cause I won’t change my mind. I can barely find it. I have to go now, my company. So you have a nice time and tell George to have one for me. Goodb.”

“No, I haven’t heard he’s ‘over-indulging.’ George’s an under-indulger by birth, Elizabeth, you’re his only extravagance, dear. And worth every penny of it, too.”

“No! Recently? How often? That doesn’t sound like drink to me. I’d be grateful, if I were you. Make the best of it, dear, pretend you like it, think of the nice things in Holt’s lingerie department. Bye!” Maude placed the receiver firmly in the cradle and returned to her company.

KATHERINE & BEA
& TILLIE & DAVID

“Well, I don’t think she was just being nice, Mother dear, I think she was being a miserable bitch!” Katherine punched her way out the restaurant door to the street. “Do I look like I’d be caught dead wearing one of those tacky pins?”

“Maybe in silver, with.”

Katherine furiously snatched back the elbow David had used to steer her out of range of the hostess and drove it into his shoulder. “Don’t you start! Don’t think I didn’t see you flexing your denims. She couldn’t keep her eyes to herself. Care for a little dark meat, David?”

“Katherine!” Bea’s voice was sharp with anger, and Katherine, her face shocked with itself and beginning to crumple, drew away hurriedly to a shop window. Her eyes were swimming with tears and she had to shut them cautiously, or lose her contact lenses.

“Sometimes that girl.” Beatrice shook her head at the shame.

“Oh, there’s no harm in her, Bea, she’s wound up for this business tonight, and rope’s a worry, you know, she thinks of those things. And then there’s. David, you go bring her along now.”

David touched an elbow gently, “Come on, Kate, take it easy.”

She carefully opened her eyes, he hadn’t called her that in a coon’s. oohh! a donkey’s age (never sure whether that’s a raccoon or a . you know). There was always love in his voice when he called her Kate. Maybe he was changing his. The shop window was full of wrapping papers, ribbons, bows, seasonal gold, rust, pumpkin, and at the centre lay boxes of cards, charming children in international yellow, pink and brown. Katherine whimpered, covered her eyes with a hand, leaned into David, took a deep breath and apologized.

MAUDE & KATYA

Maude flopped into a kitchen chair across the table from Katya, “The woman isn’t happy unless someone else has a problem, it gives her something to fix, ‘Bessie make better,’ trouble is she means better than you, not better for you. Now she’s on about George falling into whiskey pails and coming up dirty-minded. Silly woman thinks her husband’s a ledger with hair, drink’s not his problem, women are. Not that Lizzie knows, mind you, George’s a gentleman, but he likes a good pair of.” Maude petered out and her eye slid over the edge of the table to the tip of a rubber boot, “He has strange tastes. I’ve seen one or two of them. I guess I’m less of a lady, he doesn’t hide things from me. Must be a new one, Lizzie says George isn’t listening to her, which, odd as it may sound, is odd, George loves listening to her, he thinks she’s a riot. She goes on so much about everything that she manages to cover anything you can think of at least once, George does as he pleases and she thinks it was her idea. Mind you, she thinks he’s drinking. And he’s been frisky, so he must really be drinking. Dear Lizzie, she thinks they have to be drunk.” Maude sighed, “They always seem to be.” Then she smiled and nodded her head, “You’d like George, he’s an honest man. In fact.” Chair legs shuddered on linoleum as Maude snapped up and planted her elbows on the table to frame her face before Katya, “.in fact, you and your friend. Bena? Yes, you really must take the opportunity to. uh, to grace this reception of my sister’s, to meet George and. yes.”

Katya stared at the woman and heard her giggle. Katya felt her mouth twitch and heard herself say, “I wouldn’t have anything to wear.” She watched Maude’s eyes slide over the edge of the table again, and waggled her fingers, “No gloves.”

Maude’s chin rested on her knuckles in a beam of pleasure, she chuckled, “I mean, if your Bena likes to dress up. Well! This’s the big time, to the nines. In a manner of speaking. Believe me, a little goes a long way with this crowd, a decent length of Liberty and it’s finders keepers. But really, you wouldn’t even need to change. ‘just down from Caledon, sheep you know, hallo George.’ that sort of thing. Introduce yourselves to him, tell him I invited you. He’d love it, he really would. There’s a streak in George.”

She’s mad, Katya thought, silly mad from being alone, the way Bena’s mad from too much company. Searching for the livid colours of dangerous blood pressure, Katya saw wrinkled egg-shell skin loose on heavy bones and brown eyes sparking black behind bifocals. There didn’t appear to be any heart disturbance beyond a flush of pleasure, but then, at her age.

“It’s just not possible for me, d’you see,” Maude’s hand hovered protectively over her breast and Katya nodded smugly. “I panic in crowds.” Katya looked understanding. “So I tend to drink.” Now Katya felt warm. “And then I’m apt to say things I shouldn’t.” Katya held herself very still.

Maude shrugged and sighed, “It’s a social curse. Ask my sister. Two little ponies and I’m on my high horse, ‘To hell with the wind chill factor, let’s talk about life!’ My husband hated me for it. Harry, he liked to go and he couldn’t take me anywhere, I was no good for little-womanhood. A doctor in his foursome decided I was a dipso-maniac, didn’t know when to stop, so that made Harry feel better about his clubs. I think he let the boys confuse dipso with nympho and ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ I had to be kept under lock and key for his private pleasure. My god, what an asshole he was!

“Mind you, I think that golfer was right, I get a dreadful thirst in a crowded room, I suppose it’s the heat, and I never seem to find the door. Until somebody shows me. But that’s not something to worry about, nobody invites me except Lizzie and I just say no.” A thought surprised her, “Wait! Now why didn’t I. There ought to be some sort of invitation to this bank business.” She pushed from the table and stood, “There must be a ticket, something to control the rabble. Liz didn’t mention that when she called, but then she knows what I do with it, doesn’t she?” Maude strode across the kitchen to the swing door. “I’ll bet I’ve had one come. God knows I’m on all the rest of her lists when it comes to building wings and starving artists and whatnot. I’ll bet.” she jerked a jammed drawer from the telephone table until it gave grudgingly on a crush of grey envelopes. “I don’t bother opening bank mail, I never spend all I’ve got and George sends a young lad around when something needs signing; he clears this lot out every spring. There ought to be.” she brushed through the top layers, separating two or three windowless envelopes from the mass, dropped two which were obviously fat with brochures, frowned at the others, “It wouldn’t be paper, would it, Lizzie?” She felt with her fingers and prized a stiff crumpled envelope from under the lip of the tabletop. Ripping the flap with her nail, she pulled out a thick fold of vellum and turning waved it in triumph at Katya.

“Ta da! Your ticket to the circus, Madam. Come see the clowns and social lions, the fortune tellers, the canapé swallowers. Step up, step up and spin the wheel! Oh, Lord.” Maude screwed up her face in mock despair, “Poor old Harry died under the wheels of fortune. The one thing that got his pressure up was running a Crown and Anchor game; every Jamboree and Monte Carlo night he could find. Harry wouldn’t bet on water being wet, but he loved to stroke the wheel and slap the winners.” She noticed Katya’s puzzled eyes, “He slipped on some ice and went under the wheels of the equipment truck after a New Year’s do at the Odd Fellows Hall. I thought it was kind of fitting, you know, but I kept a straight face for the funeral.” She mistook a flash of pain in Katya’s eyes, “You think that’s cruel.” With a heave of breath, Maude returned to the table and sat, leaned back in her chair and stared down at the folded invitation in her hands.

“There was a day. oh, a year or so after we moved to Deep River, I was reading a book, just sitting reading. nothing important, I don’t even remember. But I noticed how unhappy I was, unhappy and old. Old!” Maude snorted, “Then, I was old.” She slapped the invitation onto the table. “I married Harry because he asked me and he asked me because he knew my bank balance. That’s how it happened, it was really that dumb. And there I was with a book in my lap like any other day wondering if I was going to feel unhappy for the rest of my life. I heard myself and I guess that’s when I started listening. I knew how to pack, so I did, moved here and bought this house where I wouldn’t have to know anybody. Well. Lizzie and George, but somebody has to have the extra key, don’t they? I’ve been sad once in a while, kind of wet and down-in-the-mouth, but that’s just hot milk and old movies.

“So then, when George came around to tell me Harry was gone, all I could imagine was the red and white and blue spin of his Crown and Anchor game, and it struck me maybe that had been his way – Harry’d never gotten overseas, hernias kept him down at the Armouries counting mess kits and cap badges – we still had the Union Jack then, and maybe the spin of the red, white and blue had been his way of waving the flag all those years.” Maude screwed her lips into a moue and raised her brows over her glasses for a look at Katya, “Well, it was a nice thought and that’s what counts.”

Katya’s breath burst with a giggle that sounded like sobbing before it caught in her throat and choked into coughing and cold tears. Covering her mouth with one hand, she squeezed her wind back into rhythm until she could take a two-fisted sip of black coffee, wipe her wet temples with the palms of her hands and apologize with a duck of her head.

“You wonder,” she paused to clear her throat, “You wonder why you think the things you do. My Arne, he was a lumberman all his life, his world was woods and trees, and when he died I thought, “How petty!” God has all the symbols, all the signs, the portents, the clichés, they’re all His and He couldn’t spare a single decent tree, not even one cheap spruce, to fall on my Arne’s head. Oh no, He killed him with a scrap of broken chain, a bit of rusty iron, cheap, no grace.” Deflated, embarrassed and angry together, Katya tried for sarcasm, “But then, He is supposed to work in mysterious ways.”

Maude relaxed, smiled and her voice was dry, “Oh, it’s a mystery, all right. People keep dying for no apparent reason, an Agatha Christie world without end. Everybody since Adam’s a suspect, but Poirot’s drunk on the elderberry wine and Miss Marple accuses the servants of everything, so the fire in the drawingroom never gets lit and the answer never gets given. It’s hell, is what it is, mindless, meaningless melodrama with a stick shoved through to hold it over the coals.” She had a thought, “Your husband. a chain. He wasn’t.” she didn’t know quite how to say it, “.he wasn’t. with chains, I mean, he.”

“Oh! No, no, no, an accident, a logging chain broke and a link caught him right between the eyes. Well, there you are, eh, it was a logging chain and Arne bought and sold trees and it happened right about the time people started getting worried about them, started to hug them, you know, so of course there’s all that kind of symbolism to it, if you like. But still, d’you see what I mean? Arne was a good man, he didn’t deserve that.”

It occurred to Maude that this woman didn’t get along with a son who made wooden boats and argued with God. Maybe this sort of thing was normal with Finns? Lutheran, aren’t they? Sense, not incense. Function before form. Finland’s a cold place, perhaps they’d rather God be practical and get on with delivering the loaves and fishes. Not that this country’s any warmer, she admitted, but we pretend the snow will go away at some point, and we’ve always had the French, and mostly a virgin Queen of sorts – Victoria, MacKenzie King, Elizabeth the Two – so we’re more or less used to rick-rack on the Bishop’s sleeve and God’s not really expected to shovel snow. “Does God ski in Finland?”

Katya stared at Maude in a lengthening silence, smelling an old ripeness of fish and hearing Saami’s patronizing claims for the tools he held Christ-like in his hands and she felt again her anger as she slammed his fish-house door. And she blushed again with the frustration of a too-late answer to his righteous self-indulgence when high over the north Atlantic a magazine display of Black and Decker had caused her to think her son would look a perfect ass if God were into power tools. “Cross-country on barrel staves.” She said it with a snort and drained her mug. “I must go now,” she began to rise, “Or I’ll be late meeting Bena.” She stood, collected her string bag, “I’d like.” she tidied her shawl, “I would like to come visit you again if you.”

“Oh, yes! Do. Come back and tell me what you think of the Blakes. And bring your friend. I’ll have milk, in case she takes milk. And here, you must,” Maude grabbed the card of stiff vellum from the table and shoved it into Katya’s hand, “You must take this and show it to her, to Bena, and maybe she would like to go. You should go. To the party. And you must come back, please do, you’ve given me.” she paused and a shy smile crept into her lips.

“You don’t want the crabapples. That’s all right, I’ll take them with me.” Katya slipped the invitation into a pocket of her dress.

Maude held the door and followed Katya into the side yard. “I’m not ungrateful, really, but I just don’t do much of that kind of thing any more. Never did, really. And since Harry. Well, I don’t get up to much at all.”

“Never mind, I know what to do with them.” Katya stooped to wrestle the plastic bag into her string bag, “When I come again I’ll bring jelly.” She straightened and extended her hand, “Thank you, Maude Matthew. I’m glad I stopped.”

“Thank you, Katya.?”

“Saarila.”

“Yes. I’ll tell you next time about the kettle, how close you were with that thought. And I do hope you change your mind and take your friend tonight. Introduce her to George, just ask. You can’t miss Elizabeth, she’ll be over-dressed and in the middle.” Maude pressed a hand in both of hers, “Thank you.”

BEA & TILLIE

“Could you not get closer, woman?” Tillie had demanded, when they had first arrived for lunch, “There are parking meters right out front of the restaurant, if memory serves.”

“Well, but if they’re full,” Bea had swung the wheel two handed and bowled the old Ford over the sidewalk, “then we’d have to go ’round the block again and I’m not sure but it’s a one-way street the wrong way coming back and look at all the room here, I won’t have to parallel park, it’s not easy you know, with this old thing, and they’d not tow from here, surely. Not Anglicans, d’you think?” Beatrice had never trusted the city and wasn’t prepared to find her car towed, stolen, crushed, or occupied by a bum with a bottle, which was why she parked it three long blocks from the restaurant at the back end of a church lot.

Tillie had stretched her legs in the autumn sun while Bea fussed around making sure that all the windows were up, all the doors locked. The old car was past practicality, it rattled, roared in high gear and drank oil, but Bea was attached to it, forgave it, felt safe in it. The two-tone white and navy paint had always been something warm, nice, she wasn’t sure what, but a safe feeling all the same and one that she was careful not to examine too closely in case it might be a vainly remembered pair of saddle-shoes. Vain, because she had had good legs and saddle-shoes could have proved it. Vain, because she’d already been a mother, an abandoned wife, and an object of pity when saddle-shoes were in fashion. Twice in her lifetime she had been tempted, had ventured into anonymous department stores with a view to pricing a pair, but what if she died and someone found them hidden in the back of her closet and.

KATHERINE & BEA
& TILLIE & DAVID

But the car was safe behind the church and Bea still showed a good pair of legs as she hoisted herself behind the wheel. She rolled down her window and Katherine, having kissed her grandmother’s ear, walked around the car with her head down, to be forgiven.

“I’m sorry, Mother.” She raised her eyes and smiled, “I’m really glad you’re coming tonight.”

Bea puckered, “Well, I don’t know about that for sure, we’ll see. But you just calm down, young lady, behave yourself and everything’ll be all right. There’s no need.”

“Drive, she said,” Tillie slapped a puff of dust from the seat between them and winked at David leaning in her window.

“For crying out loud, Mother, will you put your seatbelt on! I’ve said before I’m not driving around with you set to go through the windsh.” She remembered the crash of pans in the restaurant kitchen, the vision of her mother sailing through a shower of glass, the belly-flip of release, “Oh, dear.” She handed the lap belt buckle to Tillie to snap in place and disguised a surreptitious tug with a pat.

“See you about seven.” Katherine crossed the fingers of her right hand and waved them high over the windshield, “Bye, Gran, see you later!”

“You wear something gorgeous, Tillie, and I’ll do the cocktails.” David patted the roof and stepped back with a wave. Concentrating on ignition and clutching and tugging at gears, Bea missed her mother’s return signal of circled thumb and forefinger.
Engine gunning, the old car rolled cautiously out of the church driveway and with a grumble of power lurched into the flashing traffic. Katherine winced at the angry noise of braking and honking, but she watched until the car was over the rise and out of sight, hardly aware of the vague prayer at the back of her mind. It was the same half-articulated wish she made on the first star of an evening, on the snap of a wishbone, or when travelling, at sight of a pasturing white horse she would lick two fingers, slap her wrist and stomp the opposite foot, and thereby assure a safe journey, a welcome return, good health, long life, happiness, general prosperity and the occasional box of chocolates for everybody. It was, truly, a charm for herself; a dodging of the evil eye, black cats, drunk drivers, but she had learned to couch it in a larger concern for all mankind, to remember the hungry heathen, having been taught that the Deity frowned on greedy girls who asked only for Barbara-Ann Scott dolls and clear complexions. She’d have been embarrassed to think of it as a prayer.

Chapter 7

7

Anglican

Cowgirls

KATHERINE & DAVID

Katherine and David turned back past the grey stone bulk of dignified piety in the direction they had come, back toward her car and his subway stop. Her progress was sporadic; a companionable amble became a long-legged clip of irritation. “She says it’s my fault, David – ‘You must have done something, Katherine, men just don’t wander off for no good reason, Katherine.’ – Jesus!”

David, accustomed to her tides, poked his hands deep into his jacket pockets curling them against the muscles of his belly, matched his stride to hers and tried to resist her bait, “Is there any rye left at the house?”

“How the hell should I know!” Katherine couldn’t believe he had the nerve to avoid the subject. “I am not the rye person in the relationship!”

David chose to hear ‘wry’, “Oh, no, sometimes you’re very twisted, dear.”

Now he was going to start in on her! How much she drank, how many cigarettes, how many. “Fuck you, buddy!”

David had known it was a bad choice before it came out of his mouth, but he could never resist. “A pun, Katherine, ‘wry’ as in wrangler. You know?” He turned his upper body to her as they walked, offering kindness, “Wry, as in not straight, not square, not conventional, as in. uh.” He was stuck for quick fixes and let himself wander again, “As in ‘offside’.” He saw her eyes narrow and punched himself on the hips, “No, no, in a good way, a good way! There’s a connotation of. uh. a sense of. uh. adventure! A sense of adventure, right?” His eyes rolled with the effort, “Think of outlaws when you hear ‘offside,’ the good ones, I mean. Billy the Kid, Robin Hood, that kind, eh? Jesse James. Clint Eastwood!” Thank god, he knew he was safe.

Katherine’s face slipped from suspicion into a distracted smile, “D’you know what she told me? In the washroom. Before you came. My old man went out for a smoke and never came back because some bitch named Bessie started an ugly rumour that Bea had tricked him. She must have been knocked up, but she won’t admit it, not if you caught her tits in a wringer.” Katherine’s mouth twitched through irritation into a moue of false modesty, “I was early.”

David saw a ripple of hurt crease across her forehead and spoke hopefully, “Maybe she meant premature?”

She took a slow look at him and her eyes brightened, “Thanks, but we both know perfectly well that I’ve never been ready for anything before it happened. I don’t care about that. But I can’t believe he just took a walk without a real reason. D’you believe that?”

“No. But you never know about ugly rumours, maybe it’s true.”

“What, that Bea tricked him? He couldn’t have been that stupid!”

“No. I mean maybe it’s true that he left because of the ugly rumour. Some people hate lies worse than sin.”

“David.” She stopped short and her shoulders drooped, “If I believe that, then he’s an even bigger wimp than she is, and if neither one of them had any balls, where the hell did I come from? Bastard and an orphan! I must have been adopted.”

“Sure. From a family named Mudd, with two ‘d’s, or you’re really a gypsy stolen by a passing princess and forced to give up your tambourine for a life of pomp and circumstance. Or maybe you’re just your mother’s daughter.”

Katherine’s chin rose, “Meaning what?”

“Meaning that Bea’s so nice that you had to develop a.” He spread his hands to hold back disaster, “.a style of your own?”

She stared at David, working her mouth into a purse, she wasn’t going to let him condescend, “Brazen is a word.”

“Well, yah, brazen’s a word,” David fumbled, “for sure,” he was surprised and pleased that she wanted to play. He scooped, “Maybe you’re a brazen broad because Bea’s Miss Two-Shoes and your dad was bored.” He passed, “It happens, you know.”

Katherine examined a gritty tuft of plantain cracking the sidewalk, dusting it with the toe of her boot. David took a long and careful breath, “You know, when I remember to look in a mirror I don’t recognize the guy. Maybe he should have shaved closer, I think. But then he’s not that guy in the towel with matching curtains hawking face-foam to a camera – instead of hawking up morning crud and wearing stupid hair. Who is this guy? Is he. You know. Is he presentable?”

David lifted his hands with his shoulders in an oversized shrug and watched Katherine smile at her plantain. He cocked his head, “How do I know this guy doesn’t look like a goof every time he sets foot in the street? He seems reasonable in the mirror, but my pants are always too short in shopping malls. Do they blow air at your ankles to make you feel naked? I’m paranoid, Kath. Anybody gets near me, I’m afraid he’s going to tell me a cat dumped on my sweater. You see what I mean? We don’t have a cat. Do we?” David’s hands went back into balls in his pockets, “It should be funny. I don’t know who I am, and that’s boring.”

“David, I need you!” The plea came muffled from her hanging head.

“Damn you! You don’t!” He almost spit exasperation. Her selective hearing was so little short of miraculous that he often wondered whether she heard anything more than her own name in conversation. “You don’t need me or anybody else. You want an audience, and that’s different. And I’m just in the way. You won’t understand. You’ve as much a nice little world as your mother, you’re the star. I’m tired of clapping, Kath, look at my hands.” Withdrawing his fists from his pockets, he unclenched them; the flesh was squared and mottled, blood strained to pass white knuckles. “If you want to go on playing, call Marty.”

“But I.”

“I’ve got to go. See you back at the house.”

“D’you like the new canvas, David?”

“Yah. Nice. Bye.” He turned for the subway in the next block.

“Nice! You.” Up came her chin.

“Make a nice shroud. See you later. We’re having fish.”

“Bastard!”

BEA & TILLIE

Beatrice nosed the fat Ford into the driveway, squeezed between two elderly, bumper-scarred maples and gunned the engine to a stop a foot from Tillie’s red garage. Oxide red, a hard thing to find now, lead out of favour, but Tillie knew a man. Barn red because it was, had been, a real barn; small, but room for a gig and a carriage, four horse stalls and a box, mows and a plank granary above, a tidy latticed hen-run on the back.

“I’ll not have hens in town!” Tillie had put her foot down when they left the farm. “I’m sick to death of the dirty things underfoot and rawk-rawk-rawk into a stinking dust every time y’move a pail! I’m telling you, Stewart, we’ll buy our eggs from the Mennonites. I’ll pay! Sell berries, make hats, whatever, but I don’t want to lay eyes on another of those damned birds except it’s plucked on a plate!”

And yet, whenever the garage got new paint, the hen-run did, too. “It’s best to keep it up.” Stewart would say when she shook her head over wasted paint, to say nothing of wasted time on all those slats. Time better spent on. something else, surely, there were peas to pick and. “Maybe someday it’ll be a smart thing again and some young city woman’ll want her eggs that fresh that she’ll go whole hog with broody hens and laying mash; she’ll raise some fool Leghorns, maybe, and be too tender to kill the rooster. She’ll like it, if she’s never done it. And no lookin’ down her nose.”

Tillie snorted, “She’ll be lookin’ down her bank balance, what it costs to feed a hen!” Her husband liked to tease, but he was seldom outright critical. “D’you think that’s why I won’t then? Too proud to carry a pail in front of the neighbours?”

“Ah, Til, you don’t need a reason. You’re retired now. You can be as unreasonable as you like.”

TILLIE & BEA

“Peacocks!” Tillie blurted. She was standing with one hand on the car door, the other firmly gripping her cane planted in the driveway gravel. She was seeing a flashing fan of blue-green-gold pick its way down the lawn past the birdbath.

“What!?” Bea was rolling up her window, and startled by the excitement in her mother’s voice, twisted too hard and felt a stripping of old steel threads.

“Peacocks, Stewart, we’ll keep peacocks instead!” And Tillie imagined a pair of pure white birds strutting under the cedars. “Not scratching and pecking, just looking, like royalty. Not pea-brained Leghorns, peacocks!”

“Mother! For crying out loud!” Beatrice was mortified and furious. Now she couldn’t wind her window down and Lord knows what that would end up costing her – Bert at the garage would grumble about old heaps and wag his greasy cap and take the afternoon off to find a part and charge her for the hours he spent gossiping over a bottle at the wrecker’s – and here was her mother, the Lady with a Stick, who thought she was fit to be seen in public, standing stiff as a post in her own driveway talking to her dead husband and yelling dirty words at the backyard. “Mother! For God’s sake!” She lurched open her car door and the purse looped on her arm hit the horn.

By the time Bea’s skirt was smoothed and she was around the back of the car, Tillie was collected. “Your father would have liked peacocks, wouldn’t he? Don’t know why I never thought of them, they’re proud and they step high and dainty. Might have taken his mind off horses. Given him something to look at. I should have thought of peacocks, he’d have liked them, arrogant things.”

Bea subsided. She had to give her mother credit; the recovery was bold as brass. And Tillie was right, of course, Stewart Sutherland would have gotten a great kick out of peacocks – beautiful, vain, and basically useless. He’d married Tillie. And ohhh, she didn’t really care what it cost to fix her window. Behind the grease, Bert always had a smile for her that wasn’t hard to take. And God knows, her mother had cowed the neighbourhood long ago, she could surely afford a liberty.

For her part, Tillie would forgive that horn honk, a damned rude way to be yanked at. That kind of thing was deliberate. She knew. Subconscious aggression, or something like, repressed hostility, they’d call it. She knew. But she’d let it pass for now.

As always, talk of Stewart Sutherland established a truce. He had stood between their barbs, between mother and daughter, admiring, laughing, catching, turning the sharp words. Now they could peaceably enter the house, have gossipy tea at the kitchen table with a confidence or two, perhaps some of Tillie’s brandied fruit cake. They could reminisce, there could be no argument on sacred ground.

And thinking of her husband’s bold blue eyes slowed Tillie’s heart. No need to panic. That wasn’t a real lapse, there was no loss, she wasn’t forgetting. No, no, on the contrary, she was remembering, remembering what might have been.

TILLIE & STEWART

Stewart Sutherland worked his father’s land and wasn’t wanted for War as much as his oats and corn and milk were needed. He had a small, fair, lion head, dancing blue eyes and a hard, light body with the dirt worked in. Although he lived but a half dozen miles further out from town past the farm where Tillie Muir was raised, he was out of school before she was in and his fierce Methodist mother hauled him to church ten more miles off – the chores were done in the dark of a Sunday morning and again in the dark that night and even the cows were too intimidated by the old woman’s hymns echoing from the pail gripped between her knees to protest the untimely milkings – so that Stewart was twenty and Tillie sixteen before she first laid eyes on him.

Tillie had gone along to town in a neighbour’s buggy to deliver parcels of woolens knitted up in patriotic duty by the Ladies’ Auxiliary for shipment to Canadian boys in the Imperial Army. Tillie’s own specialty was the balaclava, much admired for the neat, flat turning like the toe of a sock. As soon as was decent she escaped the dank church basement-depot, from the fussy, self-important Committee Ladies, by fabricating an errand of embroidery silks – a polite, hard-working, genteel excuse – and she breathed the air of pleasure in a stroll past the shops.

The jeweller’s window stopped her with a heart-shaped picture locket, ‘Dearest’ engraved in the gold, but she stayed longer before the milliner’s. Her critical eye moved a row of bugle beads a little higher on a crown of blue velvet, curled a brim tighter, dropped a ribbon or two and disposed of a great deal of celluloid fruit. Her fingers itched. She wished it were her nose instead. That would mean she’d kiss a fool and she felt so pleased with herself even a fool would do. Two elder sisters were married, it was Tillie’s turn. She pressed against the glass.

She was admiring the latest thing in chairs in the undertaker’s front shop window, thinking to herself that first they sat you down and then they laid you out, and how undertakers never sold you anything meant to keep you moving and how they always made money – and with the War more than ever – but that being married to one would mean having to wear dull brown a lot and black far too often and having to keep a pious face and probably never a picnic and. boom! Someone’s tired old Ford backfired behind a pair of enormous white Percherons just turning in a wagon-load of corn at the feedmill across the corner and suddenly there was a crisis of bellowing men and thundering hooves and cracking oak, when into the middle of the pandemonium, almost beneath the plunging white chests, stepped a young man whom Tillie had never seen.

He spoke, she supposed, for he made no other movement, but held his hands out lightly before him and the horses stopped their heaving and their eyes rolled down to him standing there beneath their massive heads and their long white noses touched and they gently lipped his hands. Tillie melted from the head down and had to have him. For two endless years she hatted farm wives in that millinery shop while he logged the bush to pay off for the farm. The day they wed they buried his axe and her needle beneath the roots of a flowering crab.

TILLIE & BEA

“He was never the same, you know, Bea. Your father was never the same after we had to let go the farm. I think he could never see far enough after that. This house was never big enough for him – the land wasn’t. It’s all monstrous now, too many rooms and more yardwork than two men and a boy can keep up to. Mind you, that’s men now-a-day! Stewart and I. Well! We managed well enough I can tell you! All that garden and the apples and the berries and whatnot, but it wasn’t enough. He would still drive the ponies!” Tillie waved a tea-towel like a starter’s flag, “Off to the races with that wall-eyed old Jack Fuller and his steppers – Lord! How I hated that. Night after night of waitin’ to hear he’d broke his neck and him comin’ home smellin’ all horse and slappin’ my behind every damn time he passed the stove so it wasn’t safe to stoop for a dropped dish-cloth, and me in a runnin’ sweat over the canning jars goin’ to beat the band to get it all put down before it hit the ground! And he’d crack his belt at me and I’d like as not crack him over the ear with the jam ladle and sometimes he’d laugh and grab me anyway.” Tillie stopped, absently folded the dish-towel into a napkin and laid it beside Bea’s tea plate. “I do regret all those times I swung too hard.”

Bea could have taken a good hard swing right then – Damn her! That tea towel was an out and out insult. Ohh no, it wasn’t good enough to say that the old battle-axe was distracted, lost down memory lane – Bea’s lips pursed into a hard pout – nor was Mother Dear blind with unshed tears. She was slipping a little, sometimes. Senile. There, the word was out! It was a hard thing to think, but it had to be faced. But that still wasn’t any excuse. A tea towel for a napkin! A plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face insult! Not by her own plate, oh no. It was the kind of little jab her mother had aimed at her for as long as she could remember, and memory, distraction didn’t excuse it either. She could do it in her sleep!

“I do regret those times. He’d take up his pipe then – that smelly old thing he’d not get out of the kitchen with any other time, no matter how much I said – and he’d go back to the fence there behind the shed and he’d lean there for a while in the dark, one foot up on the wire. I never knew what he thought about there, and I suppose I’d be too mad scalding jars to care. Maybe he thought about the War they hadn’t taken him to – he often shied from the men who came back. Or about the boy we never managed – me whining over a jelly bag – the son who might have tended fences instead of talking to the crows, who might have grown to buying tractors by the pair and keeping a horse or two for his old dad. Or maybe there was a woman. No, I’d have known that. And when there was, I did.” Tillie’s voice trailed and a tear slid over her cheek. “Maybe he only stood and smoked and listened. I called him a fool, young and old. It was me was the fool. Oh Lord, Bea!” With a gasp Tillie snatched the offending towel from the table, swiped it across the tears on her chin and threw it irritably onto the counter. “How I do miss that man! I loved him the day I laid eyes on him and I do yet.”

“Mother, I think you better lie down.” Bea wasn’t standing by for tears, she couldn’t take that.

Tillie’s back straightened, her eyes lit, “Oh, you whisht, girl! We haven’t had a cup of tea yet. And there’s no time for a lie-down anyway. I imagine they’ll be dressy. have to steam the hanger marks out of my black silk. If I remember, one of the cuff buttons is off.” She checked her reflection on the curve of the steaming kettle, patting her curls, “Hair’ll have to do. Black shoes, the black stick.” She waved a hand at the teapot, “You do that while I go hunt things out. Maybe you could get us down the fruitcake; it’s up in.” She paused and looked at her daughter, “Well, you know where it is. Use the step-stool and cut thick, we’re in need of a boost.”

TILLIE & STEWART & BEA

In the bedroom shared for so many years with Stewart Sutherland, Tillie opened the closet door and reaching out her dress from the dark odour of cedar and shoes, she smelled again the dry, hard little body which had been so like a boy’s even to the end, the skin loosening only a little to pucker at the groin, the legs hairless once again. She remembered a leg thrown over her to keep her attentive and to keep her from leaping out of bed and to the telephone, “He’s promised to send her money.”

“Money! That’s all you can think of? What kind of a. For God’s sake, Stewart! Why didn’t you stop him? Tell him he can’t. Can’t just walk off and leave her and the baby! For the love of God, what’s wrong with him? With you?Why didn’t you tell me? Let me up! Known since this morning and not a word. Let me go! Men, you’re all fools. I’ll tell him he can’t.”

“He’s left by now.”

“Stewart! You knew.”

“Knew you couldn’t change his mind. You’d only make matters worse saying things you’d end up regretting. You’d have Bea in twice the fuss.”

“Bea! The poor thing. Let me up!”

“Leave her be for the night. Tomorrow’s soon enough. She’s got some pride to swallow and she doesn’t need you pushing the spoon at her.”

Tillie found the loose button safety-pinned to the cuff of the black silk, and she left the closet door ajar. In the parlour, stooping for her work-basket between the worn plush ferns of a pair of armchairs, she thought she caught a whiff of tobacco and that old irritant reminded her to ask, “And what are we going to tell the baby? What is wee Katherine ever going to think of us letting her father up and walk out on her? Answer me that. D’you think you’ll just nod your head and she’ll understand? Stewart! Are you listening to me? How many times do I have to tell you to keep that smelly old pipe out of here!”

“Mother?” Bea’s voice came anxiously from the kitchen, “Tea’s ready.” And Tillie’s breast tumbled into hollowness.

The precision of her hands had never failed her, but when Tillie sat again to the kitchen table, the dress in careful folds across her lap, she reached across to her daughter offering needle and spool, “Could you thread for me please, Beatrice?”

And Bea, domestic disaster, five thumbs to a hand, accepted her mother’s gift; unspooled a length from nose to fingertip, bit, and passed on first stab, to her own amazement, through the needle’s eye. Startled, she said, “Thank you, Mother.”

“You’re welcome, dear.” And bending to her sewing with a smile, “So, David’s leaving.”

Oh God! Beatrice’s lip trembled, and pinching it with her teeth on the inside edge that her mother mightn’t see, she planted both elbows on the table, rested her forehead in her palms and gave way to panic. God, it’s too much, it’s always been too much, I can’t take it, my heart can’t take it, these leaps and bounces, explosions opening me up, slamming me shut. It hurts, for pete’s sake! It hurts! Why are they like this? Why? I want to scream at her and pound her precious tea plates into smithereens and kick and cry and tear her damned old dress to rags and. They do it in movies, I’ve seen them. Widows screech and jump into coffin holes tearing their hair. And in books they smash and rip and jump into cars and drive too fast and into walls and off cliffs and. Somewhere it must be real!

“Now don’t start blubbering,” Tillie paused with her needle, “It’s her he’s leaving, not you.”

Bea snatched her hands from her face, “That’s mean!”

“That’s better.” Tillie resumed sewing. “I expect she’s upset. Of course she is, but she’s not bawling about it. She didn’t even tell me about it.”

“Maybe she doesn’t think it’s any of your business,” Bea took a slow breath, “and why should she bother,” her eyes winked with pain, “you’d only pretend nothing’s wrong.”

Tillie sighed. She had allowed Stewart’s leg to keep her in bed that night; had let herself be convinced that there was nothing she could, or ought to do. He was right, I only knew how to be angry. If I’d held Bea’s hand, I’d have crushed her fingers. If she understood, she might forgive me that.

“And it certainly wasn’t any of your business telling her what you did!”

“I beg your pardon?” Tillie wrapped a tight shank to the button. What exactly had she told Katherine? There were some things she hoped she hadn’t said. “Am I getting old, or does your mind wander?”

Bea gripped the table hard enough to rattle her teacup. “You told her about. about that. gossip.”

“Oh, that. Bessie Everett. It was just a slip and I didn’t.”

“Didn’t care one hoot whether you hurt me or not.”

“.didn’t tell her anything. Didn’t have any intention of hurting you. I was saying that you’d never in your life gotten properly mad, and I forgot she didn’t know, and I said even Bessie hadn’t gotten a fight out of you. But that was all. She tried to wheedle it out of me, but I told her it was none of my business and none of hers either. Told her a lady’s affairs were best left alone. I thought I stopped her.”

“You are so considerate.” The sarcasm was half-hearted and Bea had to pin down her lip again.

“Did you tell her?”

“In the washroom. She made me.” Bea’s face began to crumple again, “Oh, it was so shameful, Mother! Everybody, the whole town knew and when he left what could y’expect them to believe.”

“It wasn’t shameful! Bessie Everett was a nasty snip of a thing with nothing better to do than make up stories out of sheer malice, and jealousy maybe, and your brave husband ups and lights out for the Rockies leaving you with a baby to bring up alone, which you’ve done, and not a bad job, and you call it shameful. Well, maybe. But not your shame.” Tillie heaved a long breath, “All these years. If you knew.” She shook her head, “I just can’t tell you. It might have been different.” A sudden feeling of defeat was irritated by a sound of muffled whimpering, “For the love of God, woman! Where on earth is your spine? I swear you were whole when I had you.”

Bea wished it would all go away, all of it; her mother, her daughter, the husband who had, friends, job, house, garden, car – no, not her car! yes, even it – all, everything which was her life, past and present. And the future too which would come from the same, be more of the same, that she wished away more than all. Her life chafed her to tears. If only she could unzip and step out of it.

Sometimes at home alone on a Sunday curled in her blue terry robe in a corner of the couch, a book and a pot of tea on the table within reach, the soundless television flickering safely beside the cold fireplace, sometimes life was bearable. Devoid of responsibility, the skin of her breasts unbound, she could feel herself breathe and a sad affection would bring rueful, smiling tears, and relief. But. so seldom.

She kept a pair of porcelain ducks on the table by the couch. Chipped and retouched, broken and glued, they were what she had of the husband who had bought them for her in a shop beside the Falls. It was only after he had sent the letter from Trail and she had known that he wouldn’t be back that she recalled the cold, wet rain that had fallen through the three days of honeymoon, and noticed that both of the little figurines were drakes. That was the moment she remembered on those Sundays in the years that came after, the moment the wind left her sails. Life went on, but it never again looked like anything she had imagined, had dreamt of, had asked for. It didn’t fit. It wasn’t hers.
Tillie bit the thread from the cuff button, reshipped the needle and closed her workbasket. She studied her daughter’s bowed head and tried to think of something nice to say. “You’re not going in that old cardigan, are you?”

Chapter 8

8

Anglican

Cowgirls

KATHERINE & MARTIN & GEORGE

Among the swaying towers of the chartered banks, the Imperial Trust draped her new matte grey marble skirts a mere twelve stories up from the Bay Street sidewalk. Elegant and discreetly rich, the dowager kept a smaller house. Even so, she had needed a tuck or two, a cosmetic lift to catch the eyes of oilmen, had to show her bones for American money. No whore like an old whore, George Preston had been heard to say when the refurbishing plans had thumped onto the boardroom table.

When Katherine pushed on a bronze lion’s face, thick grey glass swung silently in and silently closed behind her, swallowing the sharp street noise in a cavernous well of stone and light. Across what seemed a seamless floor of slate, a wall of flat dove-coloured marble soared forty feet alone; business murmured behind that, barely a pulse in the temple.

There, she thought, that’s where I should hang! My thin skin of plastic, my perfect rocks against that cliff! If I were on that wall. I’d never have to paint again! A swell of blood for a moment staggered her, so that she heard her name called thickly and had to shake the vision from her head.

“Katherine!” A young man, carefully blond in corduroy and tweed, glided swiftly to her side and hugged an arm with both hands.

“Martin. Hi.” She shook her head again and patted her bag.

“You okay? What’s.”

“I feel a little. Lunch, maybe. I feel a little heavy from lunch.”

“Yah. Sorry I couldn’t get there. But what are you doing here?” He fingered a particularly fine bangle. “You should be home, saving yourself for tonight.”

“David came and told me you said.”

“Oh, he did, eh?” Martin dropped her arm and flicked fingers through the part in his hair. “Didn’t think he’d bother. Didn’t sound like he gave a damn when I called!”

“Yes, well, he was nice enough to come out to the restaurant to tell me, and lunch with us.”

“Oh! He did, did he? Hunh. I thought he was cutting the tie that binds, taking a powder, walking out, aban.”

“Don’t!” Katherine turned away from his indignation, a hand to her temple; something cold to press against it would be nice, a vodka and tonic. No! Business!

MARTIN

Martin Knight’s father, Harold, a short, round ginger-coloured man with shuttling eyes, was a mattress-maker whose real passion was weaving tartan. His mattress factories, which did a sideline of casket satins, lay along the bracelet of train tracks across the wrist of the city affording him a piece of understated Rosedale real estate with a potting shed for his loom at the back of the garden, a bit of Haliburton cottage country done up in birch, and marriage with a low-Anglican private-school girl from Brantford who had enough gall to pretend that they had been there forever. She, Madge, manic and not trusting the motives of medicine, took sherry and doted on a succession of nasty fat Corgis trained to unravel anything in plaid. She collected furniture and was not allowed to drive.

Martin was the tail of three sons and grew up largely unnoticed. He thrived in a confusion of quality, quality being the solitary virtue of his mother’s passionate acquisitiveness. In his own bedroom an overwrought Beidermeir sofa fought a Louis Seize escritoire, sharp with ormolu, and a pair of dry Regency bookcases for elbow room; one corner bristled with a Directoire display cabinet stuffed with the hair of mourning rings, mourning wreaths and black Wedgewood bric-a-brac. His bed was authentic American Colonial, the dresser a Cape Cod mahogany sarcophagus, the wardrobe early religious Quebec and his treasure chest was a Waterloo County dower box garish with Mennonite hex signs. One real Casson and thirteen moralistic, water-spotted engravings of great moments in mythology covered the walls in busy frames.

Somehow his brothers managed to smuggle their hockey cards, soccer boots, rackets, flasks and deck shoes intact into the real world of decorators and three rooms of furniture for one price. But Martin didn’t like teams. He screamed with claustrophobia from the bottom of scrums. Instead, he draggled, caught a sleeve on the Beidermeir and spent the age of twelve infatuated with Hohenzollern history. At about fifteen, something, either the dangerous desk or the gilt-pronged display case, tipped him to Dumas, père and fils, who introduced him to Flaubert, whose Salambo showed him Carthage, whose elephants he accompanied as far as the Alps, where he noticed similarities to his treasure box before he dove into the Italian Renaissance and came up breathing in Montmartre making Giacometis in the basement out of spaghetti and plaster.

Whatever caught Martin’s imagination inspired experimentation and petered-out in frustration. The dam between eye and finger forced him to bloat as a child, to guilty narcissism at puberty, to promiscuity at eighteen, to attempted suicide at nineteen and to work thereafter, poorly paid, uninterested, and seldom missed in the offices of mattress publicity.

Had he left home at twenty, Martin would certainly have wanted the Beidermeir, the Directoire with all of the Victoriana, his treasure chest and far too much else, but at twenty-four, having cultivated ascetism, burgundy and a single platonic relationship with a not very attractive woman named Prue who read Genet and drank vermouth, he bought a queen-sized futon and took the Casson.

Prue liked to dress with what she called flair and have Martin attend her to picture-hanging parties. One night in a reclaimed loft with rolling floors and boring pictures, he tripped over Katherine Bailey’s bag as she squatted on a couch drinking wine and talking cars with an elderly sculptor. Martin actually fell at her feet. She asked if those were his cigarettes by his shoulder and could she have one – hers were too damned light and she needed a real taste of nicotine – and would he get her a refill if he was on his way to the bar. He found Prue and introduced her to a pair of boys who bred seal-point Siamese and were writing post-dated cheques for one of the pictures, then he treated Katherine to late-night breakfast in a greasy spoon.

MARTIN & KATHERINE & GEORGE

The right-hand wall of the Imperial Trust foyer was a slender framework of stone encasing vast sheets of the same grey glass as the street doors. The left-hand wall echoed the glass with a massive veneer of marble, but was interrupted at floor level by twin pairs of elevator doors, and above, at the third level, the centre was breached to create an extraordinary balcony.

An eager design to modernize the bank’s gothic escutcheon into a flashy logo recognizable on anything from billboards to t-shirts had been dismissed by the Directors as vulgar, awfully bold and unhealthy. Blazoning the initials I.T. even in stolid roman lettering was considered to be perhaps a good way to sell something, but not quite right for looking after people’s money. A bloody damned target! Brigadier Monteith was allowed to grumble, in case other members of the Board were dim to priorities. So, the gothic curlicue persisted, encircled with laurel, flanked by lions rampant and surmounted by a complicated crown. It was etched in glass, printed on cheques and carved in stone; carved for the balcony’s façade in a corniced entablature supported by acanthus-capitalled Corinthian pilasters all waisted with a bow-bellied balustrade of cast iron pomegranates.

On the floor between the banks of elevators stood Katherine’s crated painting, Martin’s red tool box and a coil of rope. “So,” Katherine heaved a grim sigh, “this’s the mess, is it? Rope. I don’t believe rope. What’s with these idiots? If they’re going to buy the damned thing.” The beginning of a wail brought Martin back to attention.

“Easy, take it easy. It’s all right. They haven’t really said yes yet, not that they won’t, don’t worry, Liz Preston’s in my pocket, believe me, but as long as it’s not official they won’t allow us to use permanent fixtures. They’re bankers, Katherine, caution’s a side-order at lunch for these guys.”

“Okay, okay! But is this going to work? Can you get it up?”

“Katherine, dear!” Martin raised an eyebrow and cocked his head at her, “Impotence has never been my problem.”

“Oh shut up!” She was snarling, “Can you get. can you raise that goddamned thing off the goddamned floor and get it on the goddamned wall and.”

“Yes, yes, yes, please! We’re in a cathedral of commerce, Katherine! Such talk from the lady artist.”

“Shit! You sound just like Bea! What I don’t need is another damned mother. Or a wimp!” She saw Martin wince and the flood of her own pain drowned the rage. The strap of her bag slid from her shoulder, Martin caught and held it with a tentative, offering gesture. There were occasions on which he would have liked very much to swing that bag in a wide, heavy arc to the side of Katherine’s head; occasions when her infuriating certainty, her dictatorial possession of moments, tromped boot-heels over the most discreet and reasonable objection. Yet, so often was her assumption of control a hot and ready desire to make the most of a situation, a wish to include the world in a happy project produced from her fertile imagination, directed with her imperious hand and up-staged by her self-centred performance, so often was her arrogance blessed with the best of intentions, that Martin, when she weakened, forgave. “Oh, Jesus, I’m sorry, Mart. It’s just this day’s starting to fall apart, nothing’s going right. First my coffee, then my hair – you should see my hair! I should be bald. I almost am bald! And then David. And then the heel’s just waiting to fall off this boot – see? it wiggles, and these weren’t cheap! And that woman in the restaurant! Oh. Martin!” Her face fell towards tears.

“Oh, you poor thing.” Martin rather liked the evidence of tears. “You’re forgiven. I don’t mind. I’ve been called worse. But you really should try to keep it together. It’s not going to help any if you’re all red and swollen. Calm down now, take deep breaths. That’s the girl! This’ll work fine. See? The rope almost matches, blends right in.”

“Not very thick.” The little-girl sad voice was understood to be charming.

“Doesn’t have to be, heavy test stuff.” Martin squatted beside the coil and took an end in hand. “I tie it in dead centre, a single line up the wall and around that middle pineapple.”

“Pomegranate.”

“I know. Around it, and. Presto! Nice rope, eh? Ran all over looking for it, nothing but that awful yellow nylon crap everywhere. Found this one in one of those sail places, real rope, in keeping with the artistic integrity, my dear.”

“Martin, you’re the best! Forgive my temper. Do you just tie it? What if somebody pulls.”

“Not to worry. Your man in the marketplace had the foresight, may I say brilliance, to get the sail salesman to show me a knot that won’t undo unless the weight’s lifted up. And we’ll worry about that later, they’ve got lots of maintenance muscle around this place. I’ve got some lined up to help soon as I get this tied in. I go up,” Martin bounced upright, pointing to the farthest elevator, “that one opens at the back on three. I go ’round the corner into the balcony, they push, I pull and. Heave Ho, Up She Rises! And soon as the doors close for the day, the caterers set up along that side – booze, cheese, nibble stuff – and that way there’s the whole length of the place to get good perspective. Won’t have to crane their double chins.”

“But why does it have to be this wall with that jesus kitschy temple hanging off it? It should be that wall.” Katherine flung an arm, bangles crashing, at the free-standing back wall, sheer and monolithic. “That wall’s perfect.”

“I know, I know, but listen, sweetheart, they weren’t going to hang anything in here until I leaned on Liz Preston. She doesn’t like this wall either; she’s all for the temple effect, but thinks the elevators look like washroom cubicles. And they do, kind of, all this marble, there should be urinals along that wall.” In his turn, Martin pointed to the back wall. “So, I told her that if your painting could hang in the centre here, it’d restore the visual integrity of the interrupted surface – stone on stone, d’you see – or some kind of donkey-dung along those lines. And, I told her my mother is interested in it, which she isn’t, of course, but it did the trick and she.” In the act of remembering to lower his arm, Martin was distracted by a figure crossing the floor to the street doors. “.you haven’t. Hold on!” And he darted across the foyer.

Katherine watched him speak to a white-haired man wearing an expensive grey coat and holding a dark homburg in gloved hands. His posture appeared attentive towards Martin, but Katherine thought she saw reluctance in the fingers drumming the hat brim as he was conducted to her side.

“Katherine, this’s perfect timing. I don’t believe you’ve met George Preston, the man in charge. Mr Preston, Katherine Bailey, the painter.”

“How do you do, Miss Bailey. I trust everything is satisfactory?” He bowed his head in apology for his gloved hand.

“How do you do, sir. It’s Mrs and I’m annoyed, actually.” It wasn’t that he had had quite enough time to remove the glove as he came across the foyer – Katherine was laissez-faire on the fine point of etiquette, as long as he knew what he was supposed to do, she didn’t mind him not doing it; it wasn’t even because Martin had forced this introduction – she was always shy of meeting people, especially when unprepared, afraid of embarrassing herself, afraid of contempt. No, it was Martin’s blithe ‘of course’ that raised her chin. From previous description, she could well believe that his mother might be indifferent to anything painted since Gainsborough washed his last brush, however – where the hell did the ‘of course’ come from?

Martin heard the edge in her voice, “Now, Katherine.”

“Annoyed is nicer than what I really am, Martin.”

George Preston’s fingers stilled on his hat brim. Temperament, he thought, watching Katherine’s eyes stab from Martin, to wall, to crate and back. Not entirely sober, either, I don’t think. Ah, the rope, she’s upset about the hanging arrangement, cheesy, but there’s no help for it. Should have approved the purchase beforehand, so she could nail it to the wall good and proper, but the Board has to poke at it and grunt first. Elizabeth ought to have stepped on their heads and signed a cheque. She needs more. Nerve? Not bloody likely. She’s no more taste of her own than old Monteith, but she can spot a fellow like Martin who can fill up the shop window for her. If she’d just learn to polish her brass. “What seems to be the problem, Mrs Bailey?”

“Ro-pe.” Two syllables, but that’s how her head felt, split in the middle.

“I understand. Hanging is one thing, isn’t it? But hanging by a rope is quite another. You are remarkably generous to allow us to take such advantage of you. If it could have been otherwise, I assure you it would have been, but we have a rather old-fashioned set of citizens on our Board who think it was badly managed when the shepherds got in before We Three Kings. They’ve come to live for the glory of the first look-see, pride of possession. Aristocracy tends to get thin and mean in a socialist state. D’you know,” George pointed his chin up at the ornate balcony above, “when we settled for that over-wrought bit of handicraft, our Brigadier Monteith very proudly declared that it made him feel positively Venetian. So, you see what we’re up against.”

“Philistines.”

“Oh, Philistines, of course, they’re always about, quite thick on the ground, really,” he hung his hat from one hand and waved the other at the walls of marble, “preferred ground, naturally, in a bank. But if you’ve the jawbone of an ass, you can clear space right enough.” There seemed to be a very small smile in the corners of his mouth, “D’you know my wife then, Mrs Bailey?”

“No, no, they haven’t met yet.” The gathering lines in Katherine’s face sent Martin rushing in before she could organize a response. “Tonight! Tonight’ll be the big event. Your wife’s a tremendous fan of Katherine’s work, eager to meet the artist. It’s so exciting it’s almost too much. I’m sure they’ll have a whole lot to say to each other.”

“That I wouldn’t doubt.” George was pinching a grin. “Well, I must get off. A pleasure to have met you, Mrs Bailey. Goodbye, Martin.” With a nod, he turned to recross the floor.

“Bye! We’ll see you tonight.” Martin called after.

George hesitated in the two-handed act of placing his hat on his head and looked over his shoulder. “Oh? Oh, yes, of course. Good afternoon, then.” And was gone through the grey glass doors.

“Yyyyyaaaaa.”

“Please, Katherine! Not now, please!”

“That son-of-a.” She bit it off, glaring. “Jawbone of an ass.” She bit again and breathed roaring through her nose. “Jesus H. Christ, Martin! You’ve sold me down the river, to the enemy, to the goddamned Philistines themselves! David’ll.”

“Oh, David, David, David!” Martin was quick to match her anger, “What the hell does he know? Wouldn’t recognize art if the Sistine roof fell on his head. He’s so busy chasing his fly around town, robbing cradles.”

“Martin!” She grabbed at his arm.

“Oh, never mind. Sorry. But it’s true, makes me so damned mad, what he’s doing to you.”

“Just forget it. Okay?”

“Okay, okay. But look, forget old George, don’t worry about him, he’s harmless, pompous maybe, but not so bad. It’s Liz who calls the shots. She and my mother were.”

“And your mother, what the hell.”

“Never mind the rest of it, the important thing now is that they’ve been prigs together since school and for some reason, god knows why, Liz thinks we’re just the most cultured things since yoghurt, and she believes anything I say. She’s no hell for niceness – the girls up at Holt’s call her Dragon Lady, according to Madge – and the Peter Pan collars are a blind, but she is the Chairwoman. If she wants to patronize the Arts, my dear, you be Art and let her patronize away.”

“Just let her patronize me!” Katherine lowered her head and growled, “I’ll rearrange her collar for her. God, I bet she wears a cloth coat in January!”

“Katherine, please.” Martin pinched his cheeks to look long-suffering.

“Just kidding. I’ll behave. Are you going to be done in time for dinner? David’s doing fish.”

“Well, I don’t know.” He pursed his lips.

“Oh, come on, don’t be silly. I need you. It’s not going to be easy for me, you know. This’ll be the last. Holy shit! I forgot to tell you. Gran and Bea are coming!”

“For dinner?”

“No, after. But I mean they’re coming here!”

“But your mother never.”

“I know. Gran decided she wanted to come and she’s making Bea bri:^..

there is a line missing here which I’ll have to look up.thankyou.

Chapter 9

9

Anglican

Cowgirls

KATYA

To get to the Gallery, Katya rode the subway two stations farther south then necessary and walked west. Most of the downtown streets irritated her. The greasy pavements of Chinatown made her nervous and the conceit of Queen, awed by its own cunning modishness, raised her blood pressure. She chose King, dry and grey as flannel, where the banks refrained from tugging at her sleeve. The intensity of her encounter with Maude Matthew had clouded her focus and she felt the need of space, of a colourless canyon where she could pull back her head and see again.

What did this Maude want, Katya wondered, could she be a friend? Did she, Katya, want another friend? She had Bena. She grinned up at a favourite gargoyle rainspout snarling down at the traffic. Yes, she had Bena. Never too sure why. Did she like Maude? Yes. And yet. well. maybe. Good question. There was sharpness in Maude, a quick intelligence that had stepped right on the ends of Katya’s words. She had recognized Katya’s imaginary disasters and had added some of her own. And laughed. At me? Katya picked at her memory, nuance was important; had Maude mocked the thought of herself half paralyzed with stroke, or had she laughed at Katya for an interfering busybody? She slowed to a corner.

And what about the fact that this Maude woman proposed sending Bena, to her an unknown quantity (for that matter, unknown quality, since she, Katya – she felt a goose on her grave – had been something less than flattering when describing her friend), had really quite seriously, as far as Katya could tell, wanted them to go (her in rubber boots, yet!) to an opening or something, a reception, in her brother-in-law’s bank, with the all too obvious purpose of annoying her own sister. Was Maude a bit scatty?

Watching for the traffic light to change, Katya’s eye was jogged by the street sign and she turned her head for a look at the Imperial Trust. The woman couldn’t be serious, could she? Sclerosis. How old was she? Katya rattled her head, she couldn’t decide. She would have to tell Bena about it and see what she thought. The light changed. Bena would want to go to the reception. How scatty was Bena? Katya crossed the street.

DAVID

David had picked Tillie’s brand of rye from the liquor store shelf, then found himself hovering uncertainly over wine racks, unable to bring his mind to bear on considerations of label, price, even colour. It’s not easy, this business of leaving, he thought, there’s no such thing as the right time and there sure as hell is no way to make it painless. Not for Katherine, or me either. What a hole! I could stand to get piss-eyed drunk. He stared down at the quart of rye cradled in both hands – he had a secret fear of holding whiskey by the neck, sure that it would somehow sneak out of his fist to smash at his feet, a rubby’s embarrassment without the oblivion – maybe I ought to get the big bottle. Large brown jug how I need thee. No. This has to be done with some sort of grace.

He patted the bottle affectionately. And it’s not just Katherine, there’s Tillie, too. With a stab of guilt he wasn’t sure who mattered more. He had asked Tillie once why rye, why not scotch, gin even? Sherry? Duty, she’d said with a straight face. Patriotism, and it gets me tight faster. Beatrice had overheard from twenty feet and delivered one of her suffering-sainthood lectures to the two of them. David sighed, focused on a reasonable price and slid two bottles of red from the wire. So what if it is fish, it’s October, too cold for white. He’d even miss Bea.

At the checkout counter, something, the ring of a cash drawer bell, perhaps the particular blue of the clerk’s smock, occasioned a jarring shudder the length of David’s spine. He knew what he needed. Not a drink, but a picture. His picture. He considered it his although it hung in a corner full of Canadians in the Art Gallery of Ontario. It was a small, square painting, an icon, the blue and red of vein and artery, the containing grace of bloodlines, one of David Milne’s wives. He had found it by chance while escaping one of Katherine’s forced marches through culture early in their relationship, when bleary with looking, stuffed with undigested facts and fed up with being treated like a notebook, he had felt himself drawn to a picture he had never seen, by a painter he had never heard of. Quietly, calmly, it had pulsed on the gallery wall, and David had forgiven Katherine her arrogance, his mother for dying, the world for being cruel, and himself for everything that came to mind. He had visited the picture off and on at need. He needed it now.

The liquor store clerk reached for the proffered money. David had a split-second sight of himself stuck at the end of a long coat-check line with an obvious brown bag in his arms – Damn! He pinched the bills in his hand. The clerk tugged. Never mind, David smiled, with the Blake show hanging, with all the crowds, his friend Paul would be somewhere on security and could be persuaded to hide the booze without a lot of bother. He accepted his change, nodding gratefully to the blue smock. He heard a snort of contempt and saw the clerk’s curled lip. Oh, Christ! He thinks I’m being coy with the money, coming on to him. Dumb bastards think anyone without a pot and hair growing out of his nose in this town must be queer. Jerk! David straightened to his full height, counted two beats, raised one eyebrow, said, “Fuck you, cupcake!” and sailed from the store.

BENA

Bena pressed her shoulders against the fat upholstery of the banquette, a mistake that sank her deeper into the seat until her breasts levelled with the tabletop. Stupid! She could feel her neck thicken. It was stupid not to sit on a chair, but who would wish to sit backside to the world? Even here in a place like this, a restaurant with a decorated window, ribboned pails of dry pasta and potted flowers pushed past nature, even here there must be something to occupy. She peered into the deliberate dark, grateful for that at least, the fashionable murk soaked and softened the net of age where it pinched about her eyes and mouth. Inoffensive exhibition posters framed in sharp metal littered the walls and Bena, sunk floundering in her capes, could see one threatening the back of her neck. My turkey neck! That’s what they think, I know! A wattled old bird, bare of feathers, of furs; no gabby old mink with a fat purse oozing lipstick on the china! She twisted her head and saw that it was Chagall behind her. Ha! A Frenchman. Katya thinks I do not know these things. He will stay where he is.

If only Katya would have come to meet me here, Bena sighed, she would pay this ridiculous price for the coffee and I would not mind so much the change. Three months? Four? Well, it might have been six months ago, but no more. She had come to meet a man in this place. It was near the Gallery and Bena had thought that she might like to know a man who looked at pictures. It couldn’t hurt. There were orange plastic booths then, cracked and settled, perogies and muddy borscht; a familiar old slut with a pencil poked into her kitchen perm slid plates to men in twos and threes. There were seedy men and tidy men alone with bottles of beer. And now. Stupid!

She counted seven art school students draped around the black bentwood furnishings. An artistic salad-bar, its neon imitating sliced radish and pickled zucchini, dissolved disconcertingly into an indifference of black mirror. Men would not come here! She knew for a fact that George would not. He continued to meet her in the dank cellar bar, in the stale sweat of beer and smoke, where they talked and smiled and shook their heads together over unimportant things, what politicians said, what newspapers did. He never stayed more than an hour – his day was a timetable – and only on Thursdays, after the barber. They played together in a mystery of first names and few details, sharing the absence.

Bena clanked her coffee cup into the saucer attracting a few pair of eyes, but no other movement, and spoke in her thick brass voice. “I do not live in Oakville, but I will have another cup of this coffee for which you expect so much money.” One of the black draped students unwound from a chair and with the artificial manners of a funeral home bore a Pyrex pot and filled her cup. Bena drove her heels into the rubber floor lifting herself by the spine and flourished an armload of bracelets. The waiter shied in alarm. Bena touched her throat with jeweled fingers, “October is too warm yet for furs.”

GEORGE

When George climbed out of his cockpit at the close of the war, he never willingly went up into the air again. Ambition and Elizabeth kept him moving, but on land, and when achievement kicked him upstairs he stuck on the third floor and had the windows of his office fronted with big-bellied cabinets to prevent a downward glance. If unavoidably hauled skyward in exchanges of power, he wore a pair of heavy Strathspey brogues and held to the edges of tables with his thumbs. His Chairmanship was chauffeured, but whenever possible George walked.

As he walked away from Martin and Katherine, he was absorbed in the setting of his hat. The homburg required two hands to prevent the brim bending under its weight of dignity. He liked the idea of both hands in the air, thinking it a safe move for a man in his position. He held the door and absently nodded to a woman he thought too old for the height of her heels. In my position! A breath of contempt escaped without ruffling his lips. The woman, surreptitiously evaluating the cut of George’s coat, flashed a hard eye at his mouth. Automatically he gave her his company smile and a careful bow. My position! He wished the ponderous glass door was a cottage screen on a tight spring to snap slamming shut behind those tottering heels. My supposedly so comfortable position – Tense. Every gesture controlled, refined, nice! Brittle. What I wouldn’t give for those clutching, flinging arms of Katherine Bailey’s, for even one of Martin’s twittery quirks. The benign evenness of George’s face ached to arch its brows, to purse its lips, to snort from a white-knuckled nose.

“You know,” he had told Bena one Thursday afternoon as she tried to read her future in his palm across the rathskeller table, “I think about Aramis, the third musketeer. He kept his hands in the air to stop the blood from coarsening his veins. I tried it. I was twelve. When I read the book. My father ordered me to stop walking around like a sissy.” George had sighed and curled his palm around Bena’s fingers, “The hardest job for a man in my position is keeping his skin tone.”

George had no meeting. He had sent the Blake tickets to Bena discreetly by taxi, had then contrived to look pale and asked Darla Samson to fib him out of a couple of appointments and now felt like skipping like a schoolboy as he headed for the Gallery. He hadn’t the time to go in, and he couldn’t be seen, but his curiousity had gotten the better of him. Bena had called to say thankyou and mentioned a friend. He just had to see.

ELIZABETH

Elizabeth Preston had no scruples. She had probably dissembled instinctively from birth and her mother’s consequent death, and from the age of three, discovering that ‘no’ was an opinion, not an absolute, that corporeal dissolution did not follow upon the theft of her sister’s doll, she determined that she would have what she wished and more often than not, providing she made a show of affectionate concern, could have it with a ribbon on it. Proud of this discovery, although never quite certain whether she ought to be contemptuous of other people’s lack of perception or of their virtuous forbearance, she fed her pride with a vigorous self-analysis which encouraged her to do as she pleased so long as she pleased to do it.

Holding the chatelaine’s keys to George’s wealth, she spent money and was canny enough to avoid eccentricities of taste, knowing that to be a privilege granted the disinterested. Elizabeth’s subtlety was her most obvious characteristic.

She dashed from the salon to her car, damning herself for not having taken the time to eat lunch. Now that her make-up was in place, she would have to starve until god knows what hour. There would be trouble enough not messing her hair when she changed for the reception, perhaps she could manage to sip something healthy, with an egg in, and just touch up her lips.

She checked the time at a stoplight and stomped the accelerator in exasperation. She shouldn’t have to do this! If people really appreciated all the work she did, the responsibility she took, all the fuss and bother she went to for the sole purpose of improving the quality of their lives – if even George did – she wouldn’t have to put up with this. damned traffic! and telephones! and. and having to deal directly with caterers and things. She really did deserve a secretary of her own. George wouldn’t even let her use his precious Darla Dyke for invitations and little things like that. And she should have the big car for herself, with whatsisname the driver. Here she was, late, and what on earth was she going to do about parking? She shouldn’t have to walk to the Gallery from a parking garage! Maybe if that young man. very handsome. Paul. so good about carrying things. nice hands. perhaps she could find him.

KATYA

The Art Gallery of Ontario, a paunch of stairs at the waist, a bit of old park in the rear, wears on its right breast like a brooch or a badge, a bronze Moore sculpture. Katya gave it a passing rap with her knuckles and wished for a big stick to hear if it would ring. She made herself comfortable on the nearest bench, sliding her feet loose to wiggle their toes in the rubber boots, and pulled from her string bag the plastic sack of crabapples which Maude Matthew had been unwilling to accept.

Why? Maude was quick enough with the coffee, with the invitations – to a reception, to come again. She almost begged. She invited Bena, of all people, someone she’s never met! A reason for inviting Bena. Why. Squealing, a tiny Oriental in pink slithered through the empty core of the Moore. A young woman picked her up as a man hovered before them with a camera held to his face. Does she think herself too much the princess for apples picked from the ground in the park? Was she laughing at my boots? Katya heard the camera click. Reaching into the bag, she began to arrange beside herself on the bench a still-life of a half-dozen crabapples, picking and choosing for variations of colour. Another click, as mother photographed father and daughter. Maybe she just doesn’t want to fuss with a jelly bag. Two apples were switched to prevent a blush of purple from breaking harmony.

Stomping feet into her boots, Katya rose with a heave, snatched the camera firmly from the hands of the startled woman and with impatient waves of her fingers lined up all three in front of the Moore. Waiting for consternation to pass into some scrutable smiles, she considered that the sculpture always reminded her of chicken salad, of the chore of picking meat from the neck bones. She smiled, they smiled, she snapped. Handing back the camera, Katya bowed to chatter she supposed was thanks, picked up her bags and moved on to the next bench.

PAUL

Paul Magarry liked working the Gallery’s porte-cocher entrance in the scoop beneath the belly of stairs because it was quiet. Usually there was little to do but look secure, perhaps open a car trunk for an art-renter, occasionally prevent a pushy member from parking. However, the people had discovered Blake, and Paul was busy holding doors, lending a hand, an arm, a shoulder to the immobile, the old, the fragile debouching amid sticks and wheelchairs and rugs from a stream of cars and vans. He felt like a stock-piling mortician, a doorman at Lourdes – check coats, cameras and crutches, please, line up for the miracle. One old woman in stiff velvet didn’t look to be breathing, but the young man pushing her chair. Paul stared. he ought to be hanging in the main gallery, full length.

DAVID & PAUL

David had no time for Blake; he felt sufficiently overwrought, thank you. What he needed was peace. He found Paul judiciously steering an old pair of nodding gentlemen toward the coat check. Their plump hands patting his wrists, they exchanged little bird-like trills of pleasure, and made eyes across Paul’s lapels.

“Hello, David. Come to the Home to kiss yer old granny? Aren’t they a brave lot? Come to see the icons, too bad they haven’t any real faith, they might skip home. But it’s nice they’re brought out for the culture. You’re not here for the old Bill? You’ll die in the line.”

“Happy in your work are you, Matron? Your wimple’s askew.”

Paul ran a hand through his hair, mouthed an obscenity at David, scooped a clattering cane from the floor, slapped off the brake on a stalled chair, pointed the way to the washrooms, admired a pair of red foxes clasping a turkey neck of equivalent age, and came back to David, “This is not a good time. If you were flat out on a gurney with an intravenous baggie attached, I might get you past the scrum, but not.”

“Unh unh. I’m just going up to the Canadians, to see my Milne. But I thought maybe you could stow this,” David waved the brown paper bottles, “save me tipping a coat hanger.”

“Dear God, where?” Paul spun a look at the barely furnished lobby, “I can’t slip out to my locker, catch hell for abandoning the bunker. Oh, I know! Here, give it, and just sort of hover behind me, don’t want these old sherry-suckers to see the stash.” And Paul shuffled David into a corner immediately behind the door, lifted a sand-filled ashtray from its chrome canister stand, stood the bag in the bottom and replaced the top. “There, safe as houses. Good thing you don’t have a coat, wouldn’t fit. They won’t ask you for your blazer. Now off you go. I have to get back to my paddling, busy day on the Styx.” And Paul made a glissade for some old pearls pulling on the door.

David climbed the stairs, apologized his way through the beige mumble and passed into a tunnel on his way to the Canadians.

PAUL

When the flood finally checked about mid-afternoon, Paul stepped outside for a cigarette and a drunk rolled down the inclined drive looking to get out of the wind.

“Hiyah. Got a smoke, pal? H’re y’doin’? Thanks, pal. ‘S the name of this place? No filter, eh? I like ’em with no filter. You like ’em with no filter? Ha! Your smokes, I guess, eh? Y’got a light?”

Poor grubby puppy, loaded and alone in the big bad city. Paul cupped a match in his hand. And they’re still giving dreadful shag haircuts up in the Soo, or wherever.

“Some place y’got here, buddy. ‘S not a hospital, is it? ‘S university! ‘M I right?”

“It’s the Art Gallery of Ontario. Where’re you from?”

“Art Gallery. I’m from outatown m’self. We got. Y’know Art. Art. whaziz name? Scobie. Y’know Art Scobie? From the gas station. He’s here. Some’eres. He come t’ Tranna las year. Buddy mine. His sis’er said he got a job juslike’at. I ain’t seen ‘im. You got a job?”

Just enough talent to stay drunk, scrounge cigarettes, and get chewed up by some old sleaze-bag with a twenty dollar bill. Paul sighed, ground his butt with a heel, “Yup, I got a job. You’re it. Shall we just take a wander back up to the street, pal? By the way, I’m Paul.”

ELIZABETH

Elizabeth gunned the Mercedes around the last corner breezing the capes of a crossing pedestrian – God, what a sight! The Witch of the West playing drum majorette. Three sheets to the wind, I’ll bet. – swooped the wheel into the Gallery drive – There’s Paul! Some tramp in tow. This neighbourhood! – and mortified the car to a stall by the doors. Madam Chairperson banged a kid fist on the steering wheel, snorted with frustration, slammed out of the car and marched back up the drive to the street.

KATYA

Katya crossed the foot of the stairs and went to work with her apples on the next bench.

PAUL & ELIZABETH

“Could y’spare a couple more them smokes, pal? Say. Paul? Yah, Paul, could y’. Hey! What’s that old broad doin’ there? She collectin’ the eggs, or what, eh? Nah! There ain’t no hens there. She sure has got a .”

“Paul!” Elizabeth’s heavy shoulder bag missed the drunk by accident. “Paul! Excuse me, it is Paul, isn’t it?”

“.damn nice pair rubber boots there.”

“Mrs Preston! Yes, it is. Hello. You’re looking marvellous today. Sorry about this, I’m just putting out the trash, as it were. What can I do for.”

“Hey! She’s makin’ a pile of horse balls! Lookit. uh, g’day, ma’m, horse buns. Would y’lookit the old chick in the boots there, she’s puttin’. Nah! They’re little apples!”

BENA

The car had whipped around the corner when Bena was halfway into the street; she’d had a good look at the shellacked head at the wheel. A goose walked her grave and Bena’s hand had fumbled through collars and scarves to tap a miniature of Saint Catherine in blue enamel hung in the tangle of chains on her breast. It was a locket and held a clove of garlic. Now, where was this Moor who Katya said she would be waiting by instead of in a warm place with coffee? Was it Othello? That was a play which she knew had been made by an Englishman. If there were English pictures here, maybe there would be an English statue?

GEORGE

George figured that he might someday go the way of the cat, but curiousity was the force of his affairs; what point was there in resisting innocent passion? He was safe enough on this side of the street, it was broad, there were trees. Catching sight of the friend, he would see more of Bena.

PAUL & ELIZABETH

“Paul, I’m late. Dear God! Is nothing safe? I. Paul, I’m late for a meeting, the Board, probably the Chair. I’m late and I haven’t the time to park. Oof!” The roar of Bena’s passage tipped Elizabeth into the drunk.

“Holy Mother and all the good Saints in a pastry, Katya! What is this dirty old peasant in her boots like a barnyard and her noisy shawl with the Rudolphs on it? This is my nice friend, the widowed lady with the house of her own? So long from Finland she should know how to dress like she knows how to say in English things that will hurt her friends? I have come to meet you, I invite you with my tickets, I am glad my friend is not here to see you like this. Where is this Moor of yours, Katya? He is hiding I think, from the sight of you. Moors know how to dress. You smile! You are cruel, Katya.”

“Holy Shit! It’s another one! This’s some place y’got here, Paul buddy. It’s as good as the movies. You one a them, Lady?” He took a closer look at Elizabeth.

Paul couldn’t help himself, holding down laughter just made his eyes run, “I’m sorry, Mrs Preston. You were saying?” He bit his lip.

“A zoo! This isn’t a gallery, it’s a zoo! Cut-throats, lunatics and.” Elizabeth’s left hand clutched at the enormous silk-embroidered carpet of a purse slung from her shoulder, “.and thieves, more than likely,” her right hand pointed, “and screaming bag ladies. Clear these people away from here – You there! You’re not wanted here. This isn’t a circus! Go somewhere else, or we’ll have to have the police.” Katya and Bena stared around, not comprehending. “And clean up whatever mess that is you’ve made there. Trash everywhere in the streets! You people, you come here, you have no respect. You must have something decent to wear! It isn’t Hallowe’en. This is the Art Gallery of Ontario!”

“You tell ’em, lady. ‘S what Paul here says it is, too. An’ he works here. You tell ’em!”

“Yes, he does,” Elizabeth’s mouth curled and her eyes lashed, “and he’ll clean up this garbage and park my car. The keys are in it.” And she cracked off on hard heels.

“She’s not yer mother, is she? Y’got that other smoke then, pal?”

GEORGE

Discreet between a planterful of pinched petunias and a lamppost when he spotted his wife, the appearance of Bena had sent George to cover behind a strategic tree. It wouldn’t do for a homburg to be seen lurking in areaways, between buildings, but he could respectably pass for a concerned arbourist perhaps, and poke at bark for termites.

She can’t know who Bena is, surely. Darla’s the only one who knows where I am when I’m not in the office. Knows from experience. She wouldn’t let the cat out. It has to be coincidence. Oh, sure, Porgie! You don’t believe in coincidence. Certainty of the culpability of the found-in as an article of natural law was one of those things that George kept under his hat. Accident’s coincident, and responsibility’s shared. Trust his wife to meet his girlfriend in a street fight.

George felt no urge to rescue. Elizabeth’s career had begun in the schoolyard defending leaf houses and skipping ropes and her tactics hadn’t changed. He couldn’t hear what she was saying – yelling, actually – but he knew the stance, the arm conducting the rout. Mind you, her cavalry looked a little disorderly. Bena’s troop, on the other hand, could give pause to a charge of Highlanders. Which, George guessed, might well be the flea in Elizabeth’s ear; unorthodox battledress, intimidation by loud colours and too much jewellery. Bena, old soldier, wasn’t in any danger, and rubber boots would be handy in a mudsling. When Elizabeth spun her heels, George patted his tree, smiled reassuringly at a schnauzer with a woman on leash, and withdrew.

PAUL & KATYA & BENA

Usually, Bena could recognize an insult still in the egg, but the opening cracks had been at her back, and then the shock of focus on the shouting head – the driver of the car! – had slowed her down, “I did not know what she said. The police, I thought she wanted. But then! Then she insults my Katya! You are not decent, she said! Making a mess here! Hallowe’en, she said you were! And you have no respect. Aach, what things to say. And to a stranger! To know, that is different. And me! She thinks I do not know that this is the Gallery of the Art of Ontario!”

“She should pick her nose until it bleeds.”

“Katya! You are not decent.”

Paul counted out from his pocket enough money for a pack of cigarettes, “Get yourself some smokes. And stay out of trouble.” He patted the drunk with avuncular gravity and steered him to the curb, “That’s the gutter, and that’s the road. Maybe you’d better just hike on home. Take care.” And Paul turned, polishing his palms.

“Ladies! Fresh from the bus, are we? The boots are a nice touch. Is there a tractor convention in town? Or,” His eyes absorbed the vivid reindeer and the bangle overload, “or is this ethnic perseverance in the teeth of the Canadian cultural amoeba?” Katya was disarmed by the teasing grin and Bena liked a uniform; they smiled.

“Why the apples?” From where he stood, Paul could see the little piles of apples on further benches.

Katya displayed the length of the street with an arm, “It’s so grey. And so hard. It’s supposed to be an art gallery, so what’s wrong with a few dabs of colour? I tried to give them away, for jelly, but everybody’s lazy. So I brought them along to play with while I waited for her,” Katya jerked her chin at Bena, “and I’m dressed like this because she hates it.”

“Always a good reason,” Paul nodded sagaciously, “I offend my friends whenever I can. Keeps them out of your drawers.”

Bena reared, “Enough! I will hear no more insults. I am not Genghis Khan’s horse, Katya, I am not from Oakville, I am not a Hallowe’en person, I am not just from the boat in this country, and I am not a bad friend. Or, if it is so,” Her capes were furled over a muffled clash of wrists, “it is necessary! Someone must remember how it is to behave. This little bit of manners in this country that believes it is civilized. Aach! To learn to hold a fork is not enough. This Canada plays coquette, takes money, and holds her knees tight. It is not enough. It is not nice, and it is foolish. Myself, I would like some respect. You, young man, who was that Missus My-Husband-is-Very-Important who yelled at my Katya?”

“Ah, the Queen P. That’s Elizabeth Preston. And you’re right about the husband, she’s Mrs George, down at the Imperial Trust.”

“George. Preston.” Bena pronounced the names deliberately. Although she had never devilled much biography out of her friend George, allowing his vulnerability the protection he thought necessary, Bena built puzzles from the centre out, and she wasn’t slow. “A financial man. That woman. His wife. Sweet Virgin.”

“Wrong on both counts. D’you know her, or something?” Paul was sure he saw pain unfocus her eyes.

“I do not.”

Katya started at the edges and worked in. “You mean the Imperial Trust downtown?”

“That’s the one. Have you seen it lately? Just got a shave and a haircut, very elegant. More like electrolysis and a coif.”

“And she’s Elizabeth Preston? The wife of the man who runs the Imperial Trust? You’re sure?” Intent, the sardonic grin on Bena’s face went unnoticed. “Lord God in the bright blue sky! Don’t point your finger, you’ll poke somebody’s eye. I don’t believe it! I just met.” Katya stopped and shook her head, “It’s so small, the world, so small. I don’t believe.”

“Katya, there are many things you don’t believe. You do not believe for instance in wearing clothes that are decent, that do not insult your friends when they invite you with tickets, tickets from a wonderful friend. We must now look at the pictures.”

“Bena! I just met that woman’s sister. An hour ago. The woman who sits in her yard, you know, the corner house, by the subway. I talked to her. Really! Maude Matthew. I had coffee with her not more than an hour ago.”

“That crazy old woman in her chair?” Bena’s hand reached for Saint Catherine at her throat. “You told me that you did not want to drink coffee, Katya.”

“Don’t be stupid! I stopped and she was. Never mind. She’s not crazy. A little odd maybe, but she invited us to this bank tonight, to the Imperial Trust, you and me. I don’t believe it. I was telling her about you, because I had to meet you, and she. She got all excited and wanted us to go to this reception she said her sister. That woman! That’s the sister. She told me about her, the bossy kind, a nag about clothes, Bena. And she runs this place.” Katya jerked a thumb at the gallery. “Little tiny world.”

“Oh, yah. She likes to think so.” Paul strangled the air with his hands, “I know of at least a dozen curators who’d love to give her a public hanging.” He sensed potential mayhem, “What’s this reception business? A little burgundy and brie do to show off the new emporium?”

“I suppose that’s why. Would this Elizabeth have organized that? Maude Matthew said we should go and if anyone asked, say we were invited by the sister-in-law of George Preston. I don’t think she likes her sister much, but she said he’s a gentleman.”

“Yes! Yes, oh yes, yes. We will go, Katya. We must! Even if it is that terrible woman’s party, she did not make the invitation to you, so it will not be wrong to go. You will introduce me to this Maude Matthew, and you will wear your nice skirt with the jacket, yes, and that pair of.”

“No, Bena! We’re not going. And she’s not either, Maude isn’t. She said she doesn’t like crowds. She wanted us to go. I don’t know why. She wanted me to wear my boots, and I think she thought you’d complete the act. I’ve the idea she just wanted us to annoy her sister. We’ve already managed that.”

“Oh, but ladies! Just think, all the more reason to show up at her little soirée. You’ve gotta go! Maybe not with the boots, but you’ve gotta go. She is a bitch, no question, but the Lady P. wouldn’t dare make a scene at her own party – just not done – especially if she sees you chatting up her old man. You have to!” Paul bounced with pleasure.

“Yes, Katya, we must. It is duty. We will show her what it is to be a lady with good manners who can forgive insults screamed in the street like a peasant who has fish to sell. She should know that all trick-or-treat is not for Hallowe’en. And I would like to shake George Preston’s hand in his bank.”

Katya’s hand stole to the pocket of her dress and fingered the card inside. She imagined the look of a crowd assembled by this Elizabeth Preston. A square Finn in pleated wool might make it, she thought, but the Imperial Hungarian Gypsy. not a hope. “No!”

“Oh, yes, yes! To be a fly on the wall! I’d buy tickets. Hell, I’d sell tickets. You have to go. You. By the way, I’m Paul.”

“She is Katya and I am Bena. It is a pleasure.” Bena offered her hand, “You are a man who understands these things. My Katya does not concern herself with the business of honour; her people fight over beer and for birch trees, but you know what it is to be insulted and how it is so necessary to. How do you say it? To walk over their heads.?”

“You mean step on the little peop. Oh. Over. uh. Transcend?”

“Yes, I think that is so. We must do that, Katya. Perhaps it is too late already in this Canada; it will become like Magyar, like all of Europe has become – some places it is custom, tradition, some places it is revolution, but all the same it is too many people making rules without wisdom. I tell you, between the Devil and the Cross, it is what is wrong there and here it will come too. It does come when that. that woman! When that woman with the very big purse can stand in the public street – Did you see she had legs like a chair from Sweden, Katya? – and call you, my best Finnish friend who grew up in Luther, that child of Satan biting the nipples of Holy Mother Church, but religious all the same, my dear Katya, she called you a d.p.!”

“She didn’t!”

“She might as well have done so.”

“She did say terrible things about your clothes, you know,” Paul twisted the blade, “Called you a bag lady.”

Katya felt herself bending. That pushy, arrogant. bitch! She had said that, had certainly thought something very like it, like the woman in the park, blind to anything that doesn’t match their livingrooms, match the couch. And this one seems to think that includes the art gallery and now she wants the streets too! Smug, bossy, overbearing bitch. No wonder her sister doesn’t like her. “You’re right, Bena, she needs tromping on. We’ll rise above her all right. I’ve got this,” she pulled the invitation Maude had pressed upon her from her pocket and waggled it at Bena, “our ticket to the circus, we’ll beard the lion in her bank!”

“Aach, you have a ticket, my Katya, excellent. Then we must go. It is what is fair. I invite you here to the pictures, you must take me there. We will wear our nice clothes, yes?”

“Yahoo! Good girls. I would pay money to see this. It has been a pleasure, ladies, but I have to get back, the public returns. Oh, hell, and I’ve gotta stick her car somewhere. I can think of a couple places. I hope we meet again, come back on a dull day.” Paul patted each on the arm, “Bye,” and trotted off down the drive. Bena and Katya ascended the stairs.

ELIZABETH & DAVID

Elizabeth darted from the elevator and collided with David’s legs where they sprawled from an ottoman. “What do you mean by blocking.” She stopped mid-snap. Her eyes followed jean legs up to large strong hands, a flat belly, marvellous shoulders, an apologetic grin, and she rephrased herself, “This is a dangerous corner, I’m afraid.”

David rose, “I’m sorry. I guess I get a little too relaxed, it’s my fault for taking up so much room.” He pointed to a small red and blue painting hanging in an alcove beside the elevator, “It melts my bones, takes me home. My mother had a rocking chair on a porch like that.”

“Oh yes, a very nice little thing. It’s a.” Elizabeth tried hard not to squint for a signature.

“Milne.”

“Oh. Yes. Yes, we have a few of those, I think. They’re becoming quite. They’re Canadian, of course, we do our best to please everyone.” She took a sidelong retake from the jeans up, “You must excuse me, I have an important meeting, the Board. Of course.” She dropped a beat, “.afterward, we generally. some of us that is, we repair to the Members’ Lounge, if you.” She let it drift.

Not unused to such encounters, David kept his smile carefully straight, said thankyou with a brief inclination of his head, and when the woman scudded away across the broadloom, he promptly forgot her.

Elizabeth wasted a good half-hour holding a full glass of sherry, not wanting to gum up her lipstick, but the young man didn’t appear. She could hope, but to be honest with herself hadn’t expected him, nor would she have known what to do if he had come. Some polite thises and thats were the most she ever managed when her flirtations bore fruit. Oh, dear, I hope not! So many of them are. It’s really just having them. Well, just having them notice. I mean, at least having them acknowledge that I’m a woman. And there’s that delicious little frisson down my. With discreetly obvious reminders to one or two of the right people about her evening’s entertainment, she left the lounge to find Paul and her car keys.

PAUL & DAVID

“Hey, Paul, I need my jugs. I gotta go like a bunny. I’ve stayed too long at the fair. I’ve got work to do yet, and then I have to go home and stuff a fish.”

“Don’t be coarse. She’s probably a very nice person.” Paul turned to hold the door and bow to an old woman in sable and tennis shoes. A hand behind his back waved David to the ashtray.

“I mean, I have to make dinner, trash-mouth.” David tucked the brown bag under his arm, “Fish and rice and everything nice for my little wife and. I guess you’d call him her agent. D’you know a guy named Martin Knight?”

“Doesn’t ring a bell. Should I?”

“Thought you might have run into him. You know, in bars, places. I don’t know about him, but. Then again, he may not know himself.”

“The world is a closet, David, my dear. Full of hairballs. It’s a zoo out there, as I’ve heard say. I stay at home and knit.”

“Oh sure.” David had once taken a chance and hired Paul to staff an adolescent group home, and had regretfully accepted his resignation a year later when Paul confessed that his frustration had reached critical mass, that he must quit and go get laid. David respected Paul’s honesty, but he didn’t believe the knitting. “Listen, what’re you up to tonight? Want to come to a party?”

“Fish and rice and a closet-case? No thanks.”

“No, no. Tonight there’s a shindy for Katherine, for a painting. It’s at the Imperial Trust; they’ve redone it, so they’re showing it off, and they bought a picture for the foyer, a huge mother of a thing. There’ll be lots of good booze. Chivas country.” David realized he was eager for Paul’s acceptance. He needed a friend.

“The Imperial Trust!?” Paul was goggle-eyed; it truly was a world of wonders. Whatsername, Katya, had said it was tiny. His friend Terry claimed there were really only a thousand people, the rest were holograms. “David, you’re kidding.”

“No, really! No problem. Hey, I’m still the husband of the artist, aren’t I? Why shouldn’t I invite anybody I like? I’ll get you in. Please come. I won’t have anybody to talk to, Katherine goes comatose when she can’t get pissed, and she doesn’t dare, her mother and grandmother are coming, but I’m kind of shit-listed with them at the moment, and Marty makes me want to strangle kittens. You got a suit? Jacket and tie’ll do. I can lend you.”

“I have my own gowns, thank you, she said with hauteur and a flip of her tresses. You bet your buns I’m coming, Davey-boy. It’s too perfect. I wouldn’t miss this for a week with a weight-lifter! Well. maybe if he talked marriage. No, no, no, I’m coming! I’m coming! When?”

“Better make it about eight, so I’ll be sure to be there. Wonderful! Thanks, Paul, it’ll be fun, I promise. I better get going.” David hesitated, “Gowns?”

“Don’t worry,” Paul patted the jeans, “best bib and tucker.”

“But do you really.”

“You’ll have to come up and see me sometime.” Paul flirted a shoulder and David batted it with a fist. “Go on now. I’ll catch you later. Later at eight. And believe me, David, thank you.”

PAUL & ELIZABETH

Elbowing her way through the coat-check lines, Elizabeth saw the young man talking to Paul by the door, saw the pat on the bottom and the poke at the shoulder. She stopped in her tracks and popped her lips in disgust. Oh, for God’s sake, wouldn’t you know! Of course, she didn’t know about Paul, but she was sure. His hands are quite good, but they’re, you know, a bit small for a man’s. Damn! All the best looking ones. It’s a good thing I don’t really. you know. It must be hell if you really want them. Of course, he did hit Paul back. maybe. Oh stop! Stop lowering yourself. It’s ugly. It’s common.

“Paul! You have my keys?”

How sweet it is. Paul wasn’t sure he could control his face and had to squeeze his tongue on rising bubbles.

“My car keys?”

“Yes, Mrs Preston, certainly.” He suspended the leather case over her palm, and found control, “I understand that you’re having quite an occasion this evening, Mrs Preston.”

“I’m sure I don’t know how you would understand any such thing, but then I suppose the staff around here are as full of gossip as they usually are below-stairs.” She snatched her keys, “Thank you for parking my car. Goodbye.”
“You’re welcome.” Paul held the door, “Au revoir, Mrs Preston.”

Chapter 10

10

Anglican

Cowgirls

MAUDE

Maude couldn’t remember the last time she’d baked tea biscuits. For that matter, she couldn’t remember having started the batch of dough which waited squatting on the kitchen table while she rummaged drawers for a rolling-pin. Don’t think about it. Find the rolling-pin first, and then worry about how you got into this.

In a lower cupboard she found a packet of raisins, the box was red, and she remembered hearing that her husband was dead on the highway somewhere north, and remembered burying the rolling-pin under newspapers wet with potato peels in the Saniboy. She worked the raisins into the dough, squashed it flat as best she could with her hands, and cut out biscuits with the lid of the coffee pot. They’ll be hockey pucks for size, but I don’t see that’ll hurt. More likely to be senile, the age of that flour.

She patted remnants of dough into a ring. Since you’re on the subject, got any notion why you’re doing this? I like biscuits. Umhum. And? Well, it has been a long time, okay, but I can still do it, didn’t miss anything out. Sure? Pretty sure. So, why? Oh, God! Maude sighed and stared at the stove, feeling that something was forgotten.

George’d be glad to see me. I wonder if that woman’ll go, that Katya Saarila? She said not, but maybe her friend – she said she’d tell her – maybe she’ll change her mind. I’d like to see her again. It’s been. Maude chewed her lips and nudged the bridge of her glasses, sure she was missing something. A long time since I’ve talked to someone I’ve wanted to. That Katya really was worried about me. You egotistical old thing! I’ll take what I can get, thanks, few enough compliments around here. She’s nobody’s fool, a bit overworked about me in my chair or not, but she’s not just some soppy do-gooder with her nose up the neighbours. I don’t think. She’s got edges on her. Katya. Caught ya. I wonder if she’ll come back? Probably not. Sure was different from having Elizabeth visit. Warmed it right up in here. Warm! She’d known there was something; Maude switched on the oven, thought, hunted out an old tin baking sheet.

Mind you, if she has the gumption to wade through the Blake crowd, maybe she will go tonight. It sounded like her friend’d go anywhere. Wouldn’t George get a kick out of them? I’d love to see Lizzie’s face. I suppose she wouldn’t wear the rubber boots, but. whatsername. Bena? She sounds a treat. A Hungarian princess in full fig might dislocate Mrs Chairperson’s nose for good. I could stand to watch that. Maude slid the sheet of biscuits into the oven, wished them luck and turned up the heat.

I don’t have anything to wear. You never did. I don’t remember the last time I. There’s a lot of that, isn’t there? Maybe it’s time you did something new, sort of fill up the gaps. But I. Who cares? It’s your own sister, after all. Exactly! And George, he’s always glad. Yes, yes, but a party! Big deal, wear a skirt, wear a coat, take a cab. Leave early. If Katya isn’t there, she won’t be back here. What’s to lose? The worst you can do is have drinks on Elizabeth and have George send you home in a car. Maude glared at the clock, marched into the livingroom, and gave herself fifteen minutes of Let’s Make A Deal.

When the commercials thickened, she went back, switched off the oven and took out the biscuits. She had finished off two with butter and jam and was reaching for a third. You won’t get the zipper up. I’m not going. I think you should. I think it’s time you grew up and. Maude side-armed the third biscuit into the face of the refrigerator and realized that she was laughing. It’s a dare!

KATHERINE & DAVID & MARTIN

Katherine hunched on a hassock in the middle of her record albums looking for something, apprehensively sure that she wouldn’t find what she needed. What it was she didn’t know, a certain mood, a comfort. She shuffled stacks. A Billie Holliday cover held Slim Whitman. Exasperation became depression, resignation, predestination, magic – if cowboys it was, then cowboys it would be. She poked Slim with the spindle and the doorbell rang. She adjusted the volume, hummed her way to the door and opened it to Martin, “I remember youooo. you’re the one who made my dreams come trueooo. come in, come in! Oh, flowers. Blue flowers. Paint them yourself?” She accepted a tissue cone of dyed carnations and a bottle of screw-top hock with a sour twist of lips and a batting of lashes.

“Sorrr. eee!” Martin bridled in confusion. “I didn’t exactly have a whole lot of time to run about after hanging your picture, racing home to shower and change in five minutes to rush to your house with a gift in each hand. The flowers are what was left in the cart on the corner and the bottle’s left over from a party; you said fish, it’s white. You want to look at its teeth?” He removed a pair of pale pigskin gloves with the intensity of a stripper and shrugged out of a Burberry without missing a beat, “When and if, my dear, I am able to flog you and yours with any degree of regularity, I will bring you a dozen long-stemmed Signy Eatons and an early Rothschild. You are the artist. Until then there is always Ripple, and petunias in the park.”

Katherine looked at him with what could have been real hatred, tucked the bottle firmly into an armpit and rapped him smartly on the nose with the carnations, “Thank you for the flowers, Martin. They match the atmosphere.” A silent truce got his coat hung in the closet and her appraisal of his suit went unsaid. She figured that a jacket without vents must be hiding something. “That new?”

“Umhum.” Martin dressed according to Gentleman’s Quarterly, which he hid beneath stacks of Vogue and Architectural Digest, pretending that his wardrobe was an act of God. “Nothing special. You like it?”

She hated smugness in other people. “You gaining weight?”

He glared at the bottle of wine under her arm and raised his hand to a glass-holding position, “Do you know, I heard David was seen with.”

She cut him short. “There’s an open red, want some?” She strode to the bar, the blond wooden pulpit, set down the bottle from under her arm and slapped the carnations beside it. She filled two glasses, in no mood to hunt for the one she had been using, and fitted one into his outstretched fingers. “Thank you for taking care of things for me, Martin. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” She buzzed his cheek. “Did it hang all right?”

“Of course. It looks like it grew there.”

“Marble mould. Yuk! Boring.” Katherine sipped and brooded over the record piles, looking to replace Slim. She remembered and whirled toward Martin, slopping wine on her wrist. “Hey! Oh, hell! I’ve got a surprise in the workroom. Go look. Give me your hankie.” She grabbed for a bit of silk poking from his breast pocket.

“Like hell!” Martin dodged from her reach, stooped behind the pulpit and came up with a napkin. “Here.”

“Go look.” Katherine mopped and gestured and mopped again. “Go on. I’ve finished it. I think. So black, it gives me goose-bumps. Go look.”

“Where’s David?”

“Just showering. Go! I want to know what.”

“He’s leaving?”

“He packed. Leave it alone, please, Martin. I want to know what you think.”

“Well, I think he’s a first-class ass.”

“No! I want you to look at the painting!” She grabbed his glass from him, refilled it, shoved it back into his hand and steered him by the shoulder, her nails in the seam, through a maze of furniture and plants to her workroom door. “You look. I’ll check on dinner.”

She hurried back across the hall, retrieved Martin’s flowers and wine, slowed to consider another record, but nothing came to mind and she picked up speed again into the kitchen tacked on to the rear of the brick cottage. The back pantry had become a bathroom when plumbing moved indoors and she was halfway there yelling, “David! Martin’s here!” and started, to find him behind her perched on the counter beside the sink, swinging his legs and lighting two cigarettes. He was cross-eyed watching the match find both tips. “Oh, there you are. Martin’s here. Why are you smoking two. What, in hell’s name, is the fish doing on the towel rack?”

Over the sink, by David’s shoulder, a large whitefish occupied a swing-out towel bar and cast a dead eye at Katherine. “We were just going to have a smoke and a chat. Here, Mac, it’s lit.” David fitted a cigarette between pouting lips and gave the fish a comradely pat just back of the dorsal.

“You’re nuts.”

“It’s his last meal, Katherine.”

“Then he’d better have a drink.” She offered her glass to the fish. “Oop, sorry.” She offered the bottle of white wine instead. The bouquet of blue carnations was clenched with the neck in her fist. “And he can have the flowers for his service.”

David raised an eyebrow, “Those are nice. Marty?”

“Who else?”

“The Blue Fairy.”

“Don’t start! I suppose I’d better put them in water.”

“Drown them? Good idea. God, they’re ugly.”

Wistfully, “At least somebody brings me flowers.”

He rolled his eyes, “Here we go.”

“It’s more like ‘here you go’, isn’t it?” She drooped. “And I get left alone with.”

David hopped from the counter and snatched the flowers from her fist, “.with Marty. I’ll deal with these. You won’t be alone for long. Scram. I’ve got a fish to stuff.”

Katherine’s mouth closed and she lingered, her gaze fixing on the square plane of David’s neck between collar and hair as he bent and reached and moved about the kitchen. She almost had forgotten that smooth firm flesh, so brave and bare, never more than half-protected by an upturned collar, a winter scarf. She obviously hadn’t been standing behind him in. God, how long? Seeing it new again and perfect, she whimpered. The tears ran quietly at first, but when David didn’t turn she started to snuffle, and when he began measuring ingredients aloud and walked right around her getting butter and eggs, her cheeks blew out in a long, wet bawl.

David turned from the counter, tossing and catching an egg between hands, and gave her a weary sigh. He shook his head. “There are worse things in the world, Katherine. Maybe it doesn’t seem like it, but there are.”

“Like what?” She pouted it out between sobs.

David was patient, “Like. oh, death, I suppose, for one thing, or rickets. You could have bowed legs, Katherine. Death’s worse than separation. It’s forever. We can meet for lunch any time you like.”

“It’s not the same!” She was rebuffed and sucked her tears back indignantly. “I guess I just feel things more than you do.”

His patience suffered a relapse, “You’re right, it won’t be the same. It’ll be different, and who knows, maybe it’ll be better,” he set the egg down in a bowl behind him, “or maybe it won’t. Depends. It’s not death, Katherine, the fish is dead, and we’re going to eat him. Marty, too.” David swooped his arms in an impresario’s gesture, “And we’ll wash him down with a flood of wine, and we’ll put on the dog for Tillie and Bea, and strike forth on your triumphal march into the moneyed halls of patronage, and tomorrow you’ll wake up with the same urge for coffee and a cigarette as you do every other day of the year.”

“That’s why, isn’t it?”

“Why what?”

“Because I smoke too much. And I have to have coffee before I can talk. That’s why, isn’t it? I look like shit in the morning. I’m not eighteen, my hair.”

“Where’s Marty?”

“In my room. It’s because I don’t.”

“Go play with him. Go on! You’ll make me crazy. You want to eat? Leave me alone, beat it, scram, shoo, I’ve got a job to do on this fish.”

Katherine held him with a long, baleful look, wrinkling her nose in a last hard snuffle, and turned on her heel, “You should have turned the oven on ten minutes ago.”

MARTIN & KATHERINE

Martin nosed around Katherine’s workroom looking for something to like. He riffled a pile of pencil drawings, a run of flowers caught his eye. Her skill was apparent, a pair of tulips, a clump of poppies, a single flag iris were alive on paper. He sank into a deep breath and felt grateful. He took another long look at the black painting, a three by five foot canvas standing on the easel. Little in life had prepared Martin for abstraction, his experience, by preference, had been securely concrete, in style baroque, and the non-representational tended to raise his blood pressure and leave him with a chill. The painting was black. A black picture. Mystification made him resentful. Was she crazy? Was she full of crap? Was he too stupid to understand? Why wouldn’t she paint the flowers instead? The most they ever got to be were thin watercolours tightly framed in fashionably painted bathrooms. But this! He cocked his head side to side, looking with one eye, the other, both. What did he know from Rothko and all those whatstheirnames? He had no choice, he’d have to trust her on it, have to keep an eye out for potential and a step ahead of embarrassment.

Katherine sidled up behind and rested an elbow on his shoulder, “So, what d’you think, Martin?”

“I think he’s a cretin. My cleaning lady said she saw him with.”

“That! Damn you!” She jabbed her arm past his face at the black painting.

Martin turned his head slightly and deliberately studied her hand. Large, thick-veined and surprisingly old, it stabbed a red-nailed finger and trembled with force. He wanted to bite into the fleshy edge of the palm, but knew instinctively that she wouldn’t laugh and might well break his nose. He exercised his jaw three or four times for pride’s sake. “Well, it’s really very. clean, isn’t it? I mean. pure form, I guess, non-symbolic.” Katherine snorted. “.or, well, you know. totally symbolic, eh? uh. black hole, like, and uh, dirt, earth, the earth, maybe. Widows! Portuguese neighbourhoods, yah. not the houses, the women – black dresses, coats, stockings, everything. And punks! Black leather and police boots and kohl, for black eyes. bikers. Chinese hair, uh. Night! Night, for sure. And the ace of spa.” Martin’s mumble died as her hand twitched before his nose, was cocked back by her elbow and dropped to her side.

Katherine blew out a sigh like a bored hound. Why on earth did she bother? She was damned if she’d tell him to look for the colours so painstakingly secretted in the painting – green, her favourite Hooker’s green, a couple of blues, reds, a purple, violet – all in there, carefully built layer atop layer, each hiding and revealing the others, all there, all being black, being paint, being colour. Why did Martin have to have a symbol when there obviously was none? She was an artist, for Christ’s sake, if she’d wanted a symbol, she’d have made one! Sometimes she wondered whether he had any critical sense at all. Then again, did it matter? As long as he liked to deal with the crap, the framing and the galleries and hanging and people. as long as he made her money, did it really matter what he thought about anything? “What did your cleaning lady say?”

“She saw him on the subway with Jeannie Anderson.”

She put her hand to her belly to break the fall of her heart. “Polly’s girl? But she’s.”

“Seventeen and gorgeous. Maybe eighteen.”

“Oh, they were just. ” She bit down hard enough to crack her voice, “.that’s not. it’s just coincidence.”

“Ha! You’re the one who says there’s no such thing as coincidence – it’s all part of the pattern, Martin, it’s all magic, Martin,” he went for control, “They weren’t just! They were.” He was stopped by her humming violence shoving past him to the easel.

“Isn’t this wonderful? I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Martin held his breath, afraid of her, afraid that he had gone too far with the truth, his truth, any truth that contradicted her truth. Like God with His Garden, she might put him out on his ear. He stepped carefully, “It’s different.”

“Umhum.” Her fuse sputtered and went out. “Apparently, things are going to be different around here. Maybe better, maybe not, but the word is that it’s not death, Martin, it’s not death.”

“No, eh?” He made a run for higher ground, “Not rocks either, not like anything I’ve ever seen you paint.”

“I guess not, eh. Where d’you suppose it’s coming from?” She stiffened, “Never mind that. Let’s get another drink,” and aimed for the door.

Martin tried to hold her, “It’s sure not wonderful rocks, not like that outcrop of granite I hauled up the marble cliff today. Now that is your Work of Art!” His pigeon chest puffed with congratulation.

“Yah.” She noticed in a short breath that she had misplaced conviction and made a body search. “That one, the one at the bank, that one’s two hundred and thirty-seven dollars worth of runny plastic gone hard – and who knows how long before it falls off the canvas in chunks, or turns back into ooze. Probably end up running tractors on acrylic paintings someday. The damned thing’s the size of a billboard – Come See the North – true land strong and free – Rock Face National Park – see the North as it looked before Kilroy showed up with spray paint and beer cans.” She was alone with the solemn rock, unmoved, knowing. “In a way, that’s just what it is, a souvenir, a velvet cushion with Niagara Falls on it. First rockcut North, on the right. where I come from. I hope it’s as good as Paul Kane’s Indians.” Humility brought her back to herself. “So, I’m hung. And on approval. On a corner downtown. Looking to get paid.” She blinked and shook her head. “Jesus! I need another drink.”

KATYA & BENA

“It is a miracle, Katya.” Bena painted her nails at Katya’s kitchen table thinking about muscles, particularly the hard muscle on the front of the thigh, the one that stands like a collar bone when a man rests his weight on his knees. “A miracle.” She paused to trace a garnet nail up the purple crocus standing potted in the centre of the table.

“What is?” Katya licked the sauce-spoon, moved a pot from the heat and turned to Bena, “Even you could manage. Don’t get polish on that plant! Cooking’s no miracle. Oh, do you mean the flower? It’s not so hard, you just need to know how long the bulbs.”

“The miracle is that you should speak today to the lady in the chair, this Maude who invites us to the party, and that she should be sister to the one who insults us! Two miracles. And she should be the w. It is three miracles! You see, Katya, how Saint Catherine earns her candles?”

“The only miracle is that you’re invited. Clear up your mess and we’ll eat.”

“Poor Katya,” Bena tidied emery boards and polish into a heap and swept them into an embroidered clutch that puffed pink powder, “you have no faith.”
“Oh, I have faith.” Katya laid plates. “I faithfully believe that this is going to be a disaster. It’ll be a miracle if they let us in, and if they do, it’ll be a bigger miracle if we don’t get put out on our ears.”

Chapter 11

11

Anglican

Cowgirls

PAUL

Paul Magarry had given up painting and taken up guarding pictures when the sweating became impossible to ignore. At first he’d been annoyed when his fingers slithered and lost possession of the brush; he began to be afraid when he knew that he couldn’t be just a little flu-ish every time he sat down to play. So, what was he afraid of? He knew how to move paint. Why did his fingers drip and his throat close like a fist?

He didn’t imagine that he was dying, he believed too much in magic and his corpuscles could pass tests. Home from the gallery, he spent nights drinking wine at his window high above tree level. Pressed dangerously across the sill, he watched for falling stars, or anything else that moved. He could have gone out, but he knew that bored drinks in a bar would wash up the fear, he’d cry for his weeping hands and commit drunken foolish acts. He was safer at home correcting the television.

But tonight! Paul was too busy flinging through his wardrobe to be bothered getting out his chart for a looksee, but it was pretty obvious that his moon was up and his stars were out. What with Liz Preston climbing her high horse in front of The Rubberboots and The Gypsy and dear David’s invitation to the reception all of an afternoon, well, there’s certainly something directing celestial traffic! Paul decided to give himself drinks at an uptown bar as a treat, to loosen up for the main event.

MARTIN & KATHERINE & DAVID

The golden crust of skin had lifted neatly from the pale fish and the rice and egg stuffing was rich with fragrant oil, but Martin, all pretense of sophistication aside, had never really outgrown canned salmon and he poked his fork suspiciously at some flecks of dark green in the rice on his plate. Onion? Whatever, he thought, that colour is Hooker’s green. Katherine likes Hooker’s green. It’s the name. Painters are whores. Maybe it’s parsley. The woman’s a tramp.

Feeling ballast in her belly, Katherine lay back in her chair, picked up her glass and put down her fork, “That fish deserved us.” She waved for the wine bottle which Martin passed by the neck, and refilled her glass, “We know how to eat a fish.”

David’s elbows were on the table, jaw propped on his fists. He gave Katherine a slow smile, “He came to the right house all right. You laughed at us, but I’ll bet that our little death-row dialogue lightened him up. Flakey.” David cocked a look at his wineglass, “Never hurts to be polite.”

Katherine reached to fill his glass and squinted a dubious eye, “Flakey is true. Cigarettes and a blindfold?”

“You brought the bouquet and bottle.”

“What?” Martin swung a suspicious look between them. He, after all, had brought flowers and wine.

“I beg your pardon, Marty.” David’s smile twitched, “It never hurts to be polite.”

Martin hated being called Marty, especially by David who made the name sound like a pimple-faced suck who couldn’t tell one end of a hockey stick from the other. Big Balls Bailey, Dave the Dong, macho jerk! “What the hell are you being so cute about? I’m the one with some manners around here. I’m the one who brings flowers.” he glared at Katherine, “and I don’t hit people in the face with them!”

She raised her eyes to the ceiling, “For Christ’s sake, Mart, we were talking about the fish. David was playing with the fish before. You didn’t see. David’s just.”

“Oh yes, David’s just precious, isn’t he?” Martin had developed a cold fury. “And he knows how to sit properly at the dinner table too, does he?”

David hid behind his fingers and shook his head.

“You think you’re so damned funny! You.”

Katherine’s fingers came down hard on Martin’s hand clenched by his plate. She looked for a long moment into his eyes, patted his fist and said, “Shut up, Martin. He’s just teasing.”

Martin made a small purse of his lips, arched his back and ruffled his chest and rose with a bump, “Sorrreeee! Pardon me for living, and for bringing gifts, and for not making fun of people behind their backs. I’m just the help who, shut-my-mouth, does all the dirty work.” He reached for Katherine’s plate, “Excuse me, Ma’am, I’ll just clear off this here table and do up the dishes and dry them and put them away and then I’ll tidy up the kitchen while you nice folks sit and have coffee, I’ll go make that right now, and then I’ll call a taxicab in time to get you nice folks down to the bank where I spent the whole day hanging your enormous nice picture and found somebody with the money to pay for it and then.”

“Use the good coffee in the freezer, will you?”

MARTIN & KATHERINE & DAVID

Watching Katherine finish the wine, David considered brandy as a sop to Martin’s bruises. But she’ll want one and she’s already glazing between sentences, and Marty just sharpens his blades on every drink. Toller Cranston on a cocktail – to hell with that. David rose from the table with the empty wine bottle and went to help with the cream and sugar.

“You never have anything for dessert in this house,” Martin dug into a drawer, “or silver polish either, for God’s sakes, look at these!” He wagged spoons under David’s nose. “You just don’t care. Poor Katherine.”

David brushed the tarnished silver from his face, “The polish is under the sink. Sara Lee’s in the freezer – Double Devil’s Food – just your thing. And Poor Katherine can rub and thaw just as well as I can. So get off my case, Martykins.”

“Charming! She doesn’t know how lucky she is you’ve packed your boxer shorts and your boy-scout badges.” Martin jabbed his clutch of spoons disgustedly at the saucepot of boiling coffee, “She’ll be better off without you. She’ll be free. Free to paint what she wants. She paints rocks, for God’s sake! Rocks!” He twisted his head about, trying to find the sieve and spotted the handle poking out of a pile of pots on the back burner. “With you around she paints rocks and that black thing she’s been messing with. Now she’ll be able to paint flowers and. Oh, Jesus! The black painting. it’s. Oh, Jesus! It is the widow thing, isn’t it? Black holes, Portuguese widows. Me and my big mouth.”

“Yes.” Softly, in Martin’s presence, David took a long, deep, breath. “She’s used me.” He took the sieve from Martin’s suspended hand. “I’ve been in this movie before.” He crossed to the sink and rinsed the sieve under the tap. “She’s painted me down and ripped me up, had a little vodka and sung the done-me-wrong-song.” David lifted the saucepot from the burner, aligned the sieve and poured slowly into an enamelware coffeepot. “Midnight rides. Déjà vu. She gets loud and breaks something. Spins a few wheelies on the bartender’s heart and passes out with her boots on.” He presented the coffeepot to Martin, handle first, “Not this time.”

Martin’s nose twitched, perhaps it was the coffee, perhaps it was the prick of recognition, “Maybe I should’ve picked up a cute cake for this party, an old cherry cheesecake might’ve been right, but I didn’t have time.”

“Are we out of wine!?” Katherine hollered from the diningroom.

“Then again. Should’ve brought champagne, eh, David. You got some for later, when you’re all alone with the telephone? Or not.” Martin bounced quickly away from the counter, “You bring the condiments, I’ll do us some brandies.”

As David threw the sieve at the sink, the doorbell rang.

“Oh Christ!” Her napkin flailing, Katherine almost upset the coffeepot Martin had set before her. “Ma and Gran, and I haven’t done my face yet.” She made a begging face at David as he set cream and sugar before her, “You get the door. I’ve got to brush my teeth.”

Scrambling up from the table, she tipped her wine glass smashing against the cream pitcher which, faulted as it was, cracked, fell neatly in half and released a white tide to flood her open pack of cigarettes. “Shit!” Her hands flapped, “David!” She whined and pointed.

Shaking his head in mock despair, David plucked a couple of still dry cigarettes from the swimming pack, handed them to her and shaking out her crumpled napkin, draped it over the worst of the destruction.

Martin reappeared in the kitchen doorway with three unmatched glasses clutched by the stems in one hand, “I can’t find the.” The doorbell rang a second time, long and loud. “Is somebody going to answer that? Shall I?”

David jerked a thumb at the table, “She’s done it again.”

“Oh, shut up!” Katherine glared at David, elbowed her way past Martin and ran for the bathroom, “It’s my house, I can do what I like!”

The two men smiled weakly at one another. David shrugged, jerked a thumb toward the front of the house and said, “You go.” Martin set his clutch of glasses on the edge of the table, polished his hands, poked the silk puff in his breast pocket and glided from the room. David gathered what he could of the mess into the shielding napkin.

MARTIN & KATHERINE
& DAVID & BEA & TILLIE

Swinging open Katherine’s front door, Martin brushed his knees in a sweeping bow, “Good evening, ladies! Come in, come in, hope you wore your thickest skins this evening. Your daughter, Bea.” he squeezed her hand in both of his and pecked her on the cheek, “.good to see you. God, am I glad you’re here. Your daughter is doing her double-breasted, three-piece best to be bossy, bitchy and artistically temperamental. I’m dooring, David’s bussing, and she’s hiding in the bathroom.” He turned his head to Tillie, “Mrs Sutherland, it’s nice to see you again. Here, let me take your coats. She’s got a face to build, this could take a while.”

A bit overwhelmed, Bea shuffled backwards and elbowed Tillie forwards, “You remember Martin, Mother? He came up to.”

“Yes. How do you do.” With a powerful shrug of each shoulder, Tillie dislodged her coat. “Just let me get my stick into the other hand. Thank you.”

“I’m so glad you’re here, Martin. Maybe we should just. Is Katherine all ready? Maybe we just leave our coats on, Mother, and.”

“Light, woman! Give him your coat.” Smoothing the length of her dress, Tillie caught Martin admiring the heavy old silk, and winked, “Where’s David? He promised us a drink.”

“He’s in the diningroom being useful.” Martin took Bea by the shoulders, “Katherine’s working on her face, and I was just going to pour the brandy. If I can find any.”

“David promised whiskey-sours.” With a pat at her own white curls, Tillie rolled her eyes to indicate the drum of a rust velvet hat riding low on Bea’s brow, and bent her head confidentially towards Martin, “See if you can’t lose that in the back of the closet before we go.”

“Mother!” Bea’s hands flew to her head.

“I tried to talk her out of it. See what you can do.” And Tillie thumped away through the livingroom calling for David.

“That wasn’t called for. You old.” Bea bit her lip and her eyes watered. “Martin, you must think we’re the worst.” Stuck for a speakable description, Bea sighed, dropped her hands, and surrendered her coat. “You must think we were brought up in a barn. I can’t do anything with her, and she gets worse every day. She was in the yard this afternoon, yelling. At my father. He’s dead, you know. A spell. Her, I mean. She was having a spell. She got out of the car and. The things she said! I wonder the neighbours don’t call the police. It wasn’t nice. And Katherine, what’s gotten into her? The language she used! I was ashamed of her. Trying to have a nice lunch, and her in those boots and pants. Oh, good grief! What did you say, Martin? She’s not wearing that suit, a three-piece suit, you said, she can’t.”

Martin raised a commanding hand, “Unh unh, calm down, no suit. She’s got a dress that’ll do. It’s a bit. you know, fringes and sleaze.” He could feel her wince, “No, not really, it’s not sleazy, Bea, quite tasty in fact. I saw it when she got it. I was going to go with her, but that was the day the picture got framed and I had to rent a truck and.”

“You’re so good for her.”

“.David came home drunk and told her.” Martin clapped a hand over his mouth and made his eyes round at Bea; actions she considered a trifle disingenuous.

“I know.” And she knew that Martin would be anything but helpful at diverting the disaster. She recognized a troublemaker when she saw one. Bessie Everett had been all over concern, smarmy with sympathy at Bea’s pregnancy – and then! “Katherine told me at lunch.”

“Isn’t it awful?” He drew her into Katherine’s workroom and privacy.

“We’d better go see.” Some people stand too close, Bea felt crowded, it encouraged disloyalty. But there’s always the chance. He’s Katherine’s friend, after all, maybe he can help with David. And if he can’t, well, maybe. No! It’s not nice to think that way, it’s not. Besides, he’s not the right kind of man for Kath. Not that there’s anything wrong with him, I don’t think. Well, but he’s. Oh, dear Lord, I just don’t know. “Do you know what’s wrong with them?”

“It’s David.” Martin was laconic. “Early menopause, premature mid-life crisis, it happens in the fast lane. My cleaning lady saw him nuzzling Jeannie Anderson on the subway, and if that’s the speed he’s.”

“Who is.?”

“Sixteen, maybe seventeen.”

“Oh, surely.” Bea’s fingers sought her mouth.

“Exactly! Shirley Temple with all the big parts. It’s disgusting, but very fashionable these days. It’s the ‘Oh-God-I’m-forty and haven’t had any of that, or that, or that and some sweet young things and more cream sauce, please’, phase. The alternative’s fat-free margarine and clunky hiking boots and who needs it. Of course, David’s leading a little, he’s not as old as he looks, but it might be better for Katherine in the long run, you know, if her career’s about to go like buttered buns, which it is – tonight’s the night, the flag’s up and the saluting starts the moment we arrive – and if that’s what’s happening, it’s the best time to dump the dead wood.”

Besides, Martin was thinking, it may not have occurred to either of them yet, to Katherine or to Bea, and it certainly didn’t seem to have occurred to David, or he might not be so hasty, that the longer David stuck around, the more he could walk away with in the end, if he wanted to take advantage of the community-property laws – no, that’s California, isn’t it? – well, whatever it’s called, half the goodies. Actually, Martin didn’t think that David would give a damn, too proud, but there was a necessary mercenary streak in Katherine, she indulged in chronic insolvency, and as for Bea – well, she surely wasn’t going to drive that shuddering old tank of hers into the dirt just because she liked it, and that cow-pie of a hat she had on looked to be older than God – she knew where her next meal was coming from.

It was tempting to whisper money, divorce, legal fees, to put a bee in Bea’s ugly bonnet, it would sting Katherine soon enough, and Bea, of course, would be far too nice to say ‘Martin did it’, but it could backfire. The ‘Oh, David, dear David, David promised’ tone was still too much evident, they might gang up and shoot the messenger. Martin decided to wait and if he needed heavy guns. “Of course, there’s always the chance that David might realize tonight just who it is that he’s married to and unpack his bags.” With a sweep of his arms, Martin indicated the theatrical clutter of Katherine’s studio, “From the blackness of night comes the dawn.”

“Soup’s on!” Tillie’s holler was accompanied by a thick ringing clonk and, “You messy damned thing!” Another clonk and a couple of thumps later she loomed in the doorway, “This a private plot, you two, or can an old lady slip in?”

“Mother, what was that.”

“Old brass thing of Katherine’s, full of weeds. Weeds in the house! All over the floor in there.”

“Oh dear.” Exasperated, Bea bustled towards the door, “How could you fall into that? It’s against the wall, for pete’s sake!” She was halted by Tillie’s raised stick, “You hit it with your cane? I don’t think you’re fit to go anywhere tonight.”

“I rang it.” Tillie looked closely at her daughter, at Martin, and back again, “It’s none of your business.”

“Well, somebody has to clean it up. I’ll just give it a quick vacuum and.”

“For crying out loud, will you quit nattering, girl. I’m not talking about the blessed weeds. It’s Katherine and David you’ve no business meddling with. They’re old enough to solve their own problems.”

“But she’s my daughter.” Bea teared in frustration.

“And you’re mine. I didn’t stick my oar into your trouble. Maybe I should’ve, maybe he’d have stayed, maybe you’d have kept your head up, but maybe I’d still be having to row the boat for you, and that’s not my idea of fun. You’d get a nice ride and I’d get sunstroke.

“And you.” Tillie fixed Martin with a clear eye, “Katherine says, are a good friend. See that you are. Now, come along. I said, soup’s on, David’s got all the fixings fresh, none of your packaged powders for this lad. Of course, you can’t really call maraschino cherries fresh, but the rest.”

“Mesdames! and Marty,” David swanned into the hall behind Tillie, a tray of drinks poised on fingertips, “your beverages. Whiskey-sours, the cocktail created with marriage in mind. Yours is the one with two cherries, Tillie, and yours with the double rye, Bea. No, not really, all the same. I tasted and tasted. Katherine’s got hers in the bathroom, she’ll be out in a second.”

As they took their drinks, Martin downing his in a swallow, David watched them speculatively. Not hard to guess what they’ve been whispering about. Bea’s shivering like a whipped pup, and Marty looks slapped, his lip could shave ice. Please God, don’t let them start in on it. I won’t change my mind. “You three look like you’re cooking up some eye of newt and toe of dog. Has Tillie been.”

“Toe of frog.” Absently precise, Bea was trying desperately not to cry. She felt spanked. “Tongue of dog.”

“Thank you, Beatrice. You been telling dirty stories, Tillie? By the way, that’s a great dress.”

“Thank you, David. Think it’ll catch me a man?”

“You got one in mind?”

“Well, no, but when you’re in the market, it never hurts to squeeze the cucs.”

“Mother!”

Tillie sketched a curtsy with her stick hand, “I won’t say it’s new, but it’s well kept,” and raising her glass in the other, saluted them all.

Martin shook his head and smiled, “Lovely. And the dress is too.”

GEORGE & ELIZABETH

“We had this conversation before, Elizabeth.” George dropped his coat and laid his hat on a chair in front of his desk, crossed the office to one of the bow-bellied cabinets and took out a decanter and glasses. “You could have said ‘black-tie’ if it were just us.”

“Justice! If there were any justice I most certainly wouldn’t have to be here right now riding herd on a bunch of incompetent caterers! If there were any justice around here, your darling Darla would have done what I told her and.”

“Only us. Just us, we alone, my dear.” George poured, tasted and poured again. “Not them. Merely the Board and its wives. Cabinet and cloth, purple, for colour. Just us.” He downed a surreptitious shot.

“The Krieghof crowd. They think brown’s a colour.”

“My dear, you can’t have the flash set and ask them to dress up. It isn’t safe. They don’t know how. Somebody always gets poked in the eye with a fringe. Safer when they’ve one leg up.” Bearing doubles, George approached and presented one with a bow. For some reason he felt light-headed, memories of fun welled in his arteries and he couldn’t remember laughing in the bank before. “Madam, to your success! Think of it this way, old horse, without black-tie we don’t have to line up for a how d’ y’ do. You can dodge what you don’t like.”

Elizabeth managed to drink with a pouring motion that saved her lipstick. “Like that fathead, Monteith!”

“The Brigadier? Just drop him a curtsy and hum a few bars of Gilbert and Sullivan, he’ll be a sheet and a half to the wind.”

“He calls me Betty!”

“So, call him Al.” Definitely light-headed. “He calls you Betty, you call him Al.”

“His name’s Walter,” Elizabeth stared suspiciously at George’s glass, “Why would I.”

“It’s a song. Just a joke, dear.”

“I don’t know any song that.”

“No. Well never mind.” George headed back for the decanter, “See what a good idea it is? You can just keep moving and not have to speak to.”

“.where do you hear these songs, George? Who sings. Don’t you think you’ve had enough of that, George?”

“Just a snort. And don’t forget about your star attraction, your painter woman, she mightn’t have the right kind of formal frock for a black-tie do, you know. She looks a bit Bohemian, or whatever it is you say now, and you wouldn’t have wanted to embarrass her.”

“Oh God!” Elizabeth poked her glass at George, “Maybe just a little. I knew I should have had Martin show her to me first. How do you know what she looks like? She won’t come in tights or something? Where did you.”

“She was in to see her picture. Young Martin introduced us. He was trying to get it hung and I gather she stopped in to see the awful truth. Not any too pleased, you know. I don’t know why you didn’t just buy the damned thing and put it up properly in the first place.”

She gave him a pitying look and poured past her lipstick, “George, you don’t know the first thing about the workings of a selection committee. It isn’t as simple as your mortgage and bond stuff, you know. This is Art. What’s she look like?”

“Quite well in a suit.”

“A responsible selection committee, one that takes its mandate seriously can’t just make a decision in haste and repent at its leisure. A committee can’t.”

“You are the committee, Elizabeth.”

“Well, yes, in this case, but still. There’s a duty, you have to understand that, to the public, you know, to be sure that it’s the right thing, that it’s appropriate, a real work, that it’s.”

“Not a pig-in-a-poke, eh? I’m afraid your Katherine Bailey doesn’t think it a kindness to be strung up with rope.”

“Oh, George,” dismissed with a flick of nails, “She’s an artist! She’s used to it. A suit in the afternoon sounds safe enough.”

“Trousers.”

“Dear God!”

KATHERINE & MARTIN
& DAVID & BEA & TILLIE

Staring into the mirror over the basin, poising a lipstick clasped in both hands before her mouth, Katherine despised her lips. Thin, thin and mean and bitten rough and discoloured with cigarettes, a liverish old scar, a dirty rockcut. A mouth out of the north, a frost-scabbed, consonant-cracking, side-swiper of a mouth. Who’d want to kiss that? Not a south mouth, full-lipped and sexy, grape red and full of juice. Who ever wanted to kiss this? Or lick it. It’s always me who goes for the mouth. I’ve had other parts of me grabbed, but nobody ever went for the lips first. No man’d look at this mouth and go hot and wet to crush it. With his fist, maybe.

Oh, shit! It’s mean and sharp and says horrible things, bitchy things, but true things. It is my house. David helps, but it’s mine, I own it. And Martin is a spoiled, wimpy faggot, and Bea is a gutless goody-two-shoes, and Gran’s a self-righteous old battle axe, and David’s. David’s. David’s. gonna leave me all alone. Oh God! And with the house to pay for! Watching the tears well to roll down around the trembling flared nostrils, her lips parted for breath and she saw that they looked full and soft and she coloured them with deft strokes of the lipstick.

She patted her cheeks and nose with balled cotton, thankful she had settled for a touch of kohl on her eyelids and didn’t have a lot of damage to repair, swivelled her head to check for hairs escaping the purple and gold threaded toque, stepped into a slip-like shift of purple satin, its fringed hem deliberately uneven, jammed her toes into a pair of heeled sandals the colour of blood sausage, slipped a stack of gilt gold and brass on either arm, and taking up her drink from the rim of the sink, toasted herself in the mirror and left the bathroom.

“Abstraction’s so, you know, so personal, so singular, so what d’y’say – subjective – yah. So, how’s the audience supposed to know? I mean, how do you know what the painter knows? Let alone whether he’s got it right or not.” Martin was soliciting opinions on the black painting when a clash of bangles warned him, “Of course there’s no question here, this’s art. Art. No doubt about it.” A snort from the doorway iced his scalp, “I mean, Katherine’s a real artist and she made this and.”

“Why that’s just what’s so wonderful about being an artist, Marty,” David spoke wide-eyed, “whatever you want, you just make it yourself.”

“She can’t seem to make a faithful husband, David.”

“I am not unfaithful.”

“What about Jeannie Anderson?”

“What about.”

“Martin! Stop it! David!” Katherine tried, but the men were busy.

“.Jeannie Anderson? What about her? I.”

“You were seen.”

“I saw her on the subway. She.”

“Poor little Jeannie, sixteen if she’s a day, and you coming on like.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake! I ran into her at the Bloor station. She’s doing a paper for school, a History paper, something on the Family Compact, I recognized the books. She remembered me from the party last summer, that’s where you met her, I remember you saying something about her dress – something bitchy I’m sure. She’s more than sixteen, Marty.”

“That’s not the way I heard it. You were.”

“I don’t give a damn how you heard it! What d’you know about it anyway? You don’t even like women. You wouldn’t know the difference between a come-on and a Tupperware party. It’s all the same to you.”

“Oh, now I don’t think this’s called for.” Bea spoke crisply, “That’s not very fair, David.”

“I do so like women!” Martin lurched sideways and pressed a proprietary hand on Bea’s shoulder.

“Sure, you like to go shopping.”

“You macho jerk. I happen to like women because they’ve got brains, David. Geewiz, they think about things besides hockey, Dave.”

A fleeting desire to belt Martin square in the smug yap squeezed a sigh from David as he rubbed a hand over his face. “I like women because they have brains, too, Marty. And because they have bodies, Marty, and because they eat pizza, and because they obey traffic lights, or because they don’t, and I don’t see what in hell this has got to do with anything. So why don’t we just drop it. Okay?”

“You don’t seem to like Katherine enough.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake!”

Tillie watched David’s temples swell and Martin’s chin narrow. She watched Bea’s lips purse and unpurse, another valve to a racing heart. Seeing Katherine’s eyes blaze up, she took a couple of deep breaths herself.

“Hey! Will you two cut this shit! I don’t want to hear it. You make me feel like a.” Katherine was at a loss.

“Like an old bone.” Tillie supplied.

For a moment dumbfounded, Katherine frowned at her grandmother, cleared, and returned to the men, “Yah. Like a bone to fight over. A pair of damned.”

“Mutts.” Tillie prodded.

“Yah. Mutts. So shut up, both of you. This’s my room and if you want to be in here you have to be nice. Right, ladies?” Katherine toasted her drink from Tillie to Bea, swallowed off the watery dregs, handed the glass to David, “More, please,” and walking over to the easel to drape a protective arm around the top of the canvas, said, “What do you think, Gran?”

Tillie stabbed a maraschino with the plastic rapier from her drink, “I think I’ve changed my mind. I’ve been full of hot air. Old lady’s problem, chronic and incurable, we run on gas.” She chewed with her eye on the floor and chased the other cherry in her glass. “I’ve been saying it’s none of our business, Bea’s and.” she pierced and pointed her dripping red victim at Martin, “.yours. You’re right to want to say your piece. It’s their choice, but we have to live with it, too. Times change. I was brought up not to talk about things like other people’s marriages. We said meddling was a sin. What we did was wear gloves.”

She plucked the orange slice from the rim of her glass and stripped the pulp with her teeth, “No acid in your life, you get trenchmouth.” She dandled the rind in her glass, “You make the oddest connections when you’re my age. I wonder is it the whole part about other people’s feelings that goes? I mean, it’s nice enough if people like you, but, you know, I’m not so sure it matters. There’s not that much use for them when you get old, and sleep alone. You pass up the hard-centres and go for the butter-cremes so your teeth can still meet. Whiskey doesn’t keep,” she offered her empty glass to David with a hopeful look, “but if teeth do, it’ll be the front ones, the incisors, the biters, you’ll keep – to the last, to the grindstone, it’s use that keeps them. Look what biting her tongue got Beatrice, store teeth, a mouthful of plastic and no nerve. Had to kill ’em off. You get what you pay for, satisfaction guaranteed. Are you satisfied, Bea?”

“Mother, you’re not making a lick of sense. You had a drink at lunch, and look what happened – yelling at the yard – and now you’re going on about chocolates and teeth. You know my teeth weren’t bad because of sweet things. I had.”

“Don’t I know it! Chocolate wouldn’t melt in your mouth, Missy. That wasn’t what I meant.”

“I don’t think you know what you mean! I think you’re. you’re.” Bea’s damp armpits made her angry, “. you sound like a. a bum. like an old wino, with your talk about teeth and whiskey doesn’t keep and y.”

“Oh, we know it keeps at your house, Beatrice. Whiskey, but not teeth. They drew them because you never used them, always mumbling at the edges of things. No nips for our Bea. No wogs or spics, either, for that mat. Oh Lord, somebody stop me! D’you see what I mean about the connections? It’s like a game of tag, the inside of your head like a schoolyard. And we’re all connected, and we all have to live with whatever it is that Katherine and David do, so let’s stop pretending that it’s none of our business.” Tillie came to a full stop and grinned triumphantly, “Didn’t think I could get there, did you? I think I deserve another drink for that. David, another round, please.”

Bea squirmed her shoulders to unstick her arms and with a determined rush managed to grasp her mother by both wrists, rattled them firmly to steady her own voice, and announced, “We’ve no time for more. If we’re going to get to this do, we’d better get a move on. Where’s your coat?”

“Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry, eh,” Tillie looked over Bea’s head and winked at Martin who checked his watch and nodded. “Very well, we don’t want to keep Katherine from her triumph. A rain-cheque, David.” She withdrew her wrists and, fingertips on shoulders, steered Bea to the door, “And you’ll need the bathroom. Martin, would you dig out the coats, please. Katherine.” Tillie raised a thin finger as the others moved, “.a minute.”

“Oh, Gran!” She didn’t want advice, she wanted another drink, and to hell with the fruit.

“Only a minute. Something I want you to know.”

“Don’t you like it?” Katherine tried to smile and turned quickly to the easel, “I know it’s not what you’re used to.” A throat-clearing from Tillie sent her headlong, “I don’t know what got into me. Black, all the colours of black. Of course, all the colours are black, or none are, you know. I don’t know why, I just stared at it, at the canvas, and that’s what I saw. Weird, eh? And something else that’s there that I haven’t got yet, something hard, black and hard and shiny, like glass, but not glass. I know I know what it is, but I can’t remember. And it’s heavy and sharp. Stone, maybe, I haven’t caught it yet. I will though and.”

“Your father left because he didn’t like women.” Tillie’s voice cut low and clear. Her raised hands quickly smoothed the air before Katherine’s responding tremor, “Shush, now. She doesn’t know.”

“What d’you mean he doesn’t know? How d’you.”

“No, no, she doesn’t. Bea doesn’t. Though I’ve a mind to tell her. If she’d known, she might have tried again, or at least she mightn’t have felt so guilty about it.”

Her mind blank, Katherine rattled her head and, “You mean it wasn’t this Bessie person who.”

“No, no! That just burred his blanket. He was as good as gone already. We’ve not done Bea a favour. She’d have been better off knowing he was. oh, dear. what d’you call it? I can’t think of the word. You.”

“Oh, my God!”

“.don’t notice so many nowadays, everybody living in everybody else’s pocket, but it seems to me there used to be more men like that. Men who got on without a woman. Chose to, I mean, not just because they were between one and another one, or because they couldn’t keep the ones they had, but because they didn’t want them, didn’t like them.”

“You mean he was. that he was. that he liked. Oh, my God! How d’you know?” Katherine felt like she was going to cry out loud, fall down, throw up. She wanted to stop her grandmother’s voice and discovered that an agitated hand had found a tube of violet paint among the rubble of her worktable.

“I know because he told your grandfather and your grandfather finally told me, because he said somebody should know about it in case it was ever important enough to say so. Your father was sorry about it and didn’t want Stewart to think there was anything wrong with his daughter. It wasn’t just her he couldn’t live with, it was any woman.

“Maybe there are as many. You don’t know where people live now, I guess. There used to be the Levy brothers, three of them, kept the barbershop in town. Pink and clean as whistles they were. And Archie Graham lived with his books. Oh, and those two old fellows who farmed over the other concession, back by the river – didn’t farm so much as play with their horses, they kept Morgans, and they made faces behind each other’s backs, I remember that. Stewart liked them, called them Spic and Span. An awful mess, place looked like a junkyard what with.”

“Gran, for Christ’s sake! My father!” The tube cracked and violet paint spat unnoticed on the floor.

Tillie frowned, found her place again and continued, “Yes dear. Well, he was raised in the mountains out there you know, or maybe you don’t. He must have told Bea some of this – you know that he came from there, and that he went back. Somewhere in the north of British Columbia, they did something with trees, he and his father had done. Not logging, he did that later, before the war. They marked them maybe, for lumber, whatever. He told Stewart his mother died early and he only remembered that she was mean. Not much of a start, and after that he lived in camps, on the logging, and that’s all men, and then he went to the war and there weren’t too many women there. He said he didn’t think too much of the ones who were. He came back with a bit of money in his pocket and landed up in Strawbridge with a mind to make a business of some hunting and fishing. And what’s he do but get himself into a knot with your mother, and then that other business. Well, I guess he said he loved Bea, but he just couldn’t like her, and off he went. Back to the trees, I expect.”

“You mean he’s. Oh my God, Gran! You mean he’s. Oh God! Gay? Oh, Gran!”

“What? Gay? You mean. Oh, Good Lord, girl! You mean he likes men for. No, no, no. What’s that word? Starts with an ‘m’. You see. Oh, Katherine, we really haven’t done right by you.” Tillie reached for and held her granddaughter’s hands, and neither of them was aware of the crushed tube of paint. “Your father could love, loved Bea, and he wasn’t shy of the. physical part of it. He liked women for that. No, Katherine, he had love in him, I saw it, he had the feelings. But he found out too late that he couldn’t live with her, with Bea. And you.”

“But why, Gran?”

“Well, you know, Katherine, I thought he was lazy. Not in the way of work, no, he did his chores and then some, but lazy with people, d’you see. Wouldn’t get himself connected to people; wouldn’t and couldn’t. Maybe wouldn’t and women went back to his mother. Who knows what meanness can do? He told your grandfather that we take advantage, women do, and won’t admit it. We don’t play fair. Now that could’ve been a hard woman somewhere along the line, his mother, or another one he came up against, one he knew Saturday nights in a mountain town, maybe a brass-faced army nurse.

“He might have thought he had reason enough for keeping clear; he must have. But I just put him down for lazy.” Tillie sighed, chewed her bottom lip, ruminated, snorted, and raised her brows with a wry smile, “Or maybe he was just born old and, like me now, the need wasn’t in him.” Her head nodded the punctuation, “Now I think of it, it’s likely I’ve done him an injustice – wasn’t lazy after all, just never had the need.”

Tillie subsided then and noticed the blot of violet paint in the palm of her hand. Her heart yanked her shoulders with fear, but she spotted the colour on the floor, the crushed tube in Katherine’s fist, and with an old gentleness she picked a rag from the worktable and cleaned up her granddaughter, the floor and herself.

Her mind blank again in self-defense, Katherine was dimly aware of her grandmother’s ministrations. She tried shaking her head again, but her eyes refused to focus. Somewhere she found a useable thought, “D’you mean misogynist, Gran?”

“Yes, dear, misogynist.” Tillie dropped the rag onto a pile, “But now I think, maybe the other – misanthropist.” She drew a dry purpled finger down her bodice of black silk, “D’you know, I think I see the stone you mean at the back of my mind, hard and black. not coal, shiny and brittle. Nope, can’t touch my tongue to it. It’ll come.” And she turned to the sound of Bea panting and tugging in the doorway.

Beatrice kneaded the shoulder of her coat with one hand, sure that the padding had slipped from its stitches, and balanced her velvet drum on the other, “Haven’t you two gotten your coats on yet?”

“You finally got out of the bathroom, did you?” Tillie thumped from the room, and passing Martin rummaging in the hall closet she butted his backside with her stick and said, “She found it.”

Avoiding Katherine’s face altogether, Bea hummed an exasperated sigh, “The boys aren’t ready either! Here I am.” She lowered the round brown hat into place over her brow, “.all set to go.” The only one of the bunch, she thought, who doesn’t want to. “.and you two are still gabbing on about pictures!” But she knew from the blank dog stare that she could see but not meet in her daughter’s eyes that painting hadn’t been the subject and she blew out a noisy defeated breath, “Men! I’ll go warm up the car.” She opened and closed the front door behind her, and as she stepped from the porch a cold lash of wind caught her behind the ear.

Katherine stood by her easel, unmoving, unable to find a safe thought, until at a word from Martin she held out her arms as he slipped a smock of plain black cloth onto her back. He was chancing it, she wouldn’t think the jacket party apparel, but he knew that her choice would be the monkey fur bolero which he’d let slide from its hanger to the back of the closet floor and her drooping chin made him brave.

“Scarf?” Katherine’s fingers knitted one another at her breast, “Mart, can I have a scarf?”

“Simplicity, my dear Katherine, is elegance.” He wanted to tell her to keep her hands still and out of her pockets too, but the monkey didn’t have pockets and she might notice what she was wearing. A scarlet fingernail made its way up to her teeth. “All right, a scarf, then. Just one though. Better than chipped paint. You stay here, I’ll get it. Don’t move from this spot, we’ll be right out that door.”

Martin raced for the bathroom where a rack of antlers nailed high over the end of the tub served to steam-press a heap of scarves and bandannas. Skidding on the kitchen linoleum, he thought, I shouldn’t have said ‘door’, the mirror’s by the door. He hollered, “Don’t move!”

“Is it a hold-up?” Tillie’s voice sounded unconcerned behind the bathroom door.

“Shit.” Preoccupied with willing Katherine to freeze, Martin didn’t hear himself say it.

The knob turned, the door swung in and Tillie stared at him, “You’re seriously confused.”

Confused, Martin thought she was denying him the antlers. “But I need a purple scarf!”

“You would pick purple. Something in a social statement? A bit noisy, but not as loud as a hat.” She shook her head, “You’re not likely to be taken for a bishop at your age, you know.”

“Martin!” The cry of panic from the front hall terrorized him.

“Mirror,” he said as he ducked around Tillie into the bathroom, “Mirror,” and slammed the door between them.

“.on the wall,” stretching her shoulders against the panels of the door, Tillie finished the line, “Who’s the silliest of us all?” She looked up at the sound of steps in the kitchen doorway, “Seen any dwarves, David? Grumpy? Bashful?”

“Grumpy’s out warming up her car,” he jerked a thumb over his shoulder, “and that could be Sleazy screaming at the hall mirror. It sure ain’t Snow White.”

The bathroom door snapped open and only Tillie’s skill with her cane saved her balance as a ball of mauve silk sailed over her shoulder. “Give her that and tell her the damned monkey died!” and the door slammed shut again.

“Dressed against her will, d’you suppose?” David’s mouth buckled and Tillie answered his grin.

“David,” she tapped her lips quiet, “we must be nice.” He stooped and she accepted the scarf from his hand, “I’ll go tend the princess.”

David perched beside the sink, heels hooked on a drawer, and lit a cigarette. She’ll hate having to wash dishes. She’ll miss me doing them, and think she still loves me. Elbows on knees, he clasped the cigarette in both hands at his lip.

Martin spotted a fresh pimple rising at the corner of a nostril and erupted in spitting rage over the bathroom basin. Why can’t they do what they’re told!? He hammered a fist on the waist of a toothpaste tube. He hammered on the rim of the basin, connected on the porcelain with a wrist bone and whimpered with the shock. What’d I ever do to Tillie? She goes for my throat just because I try to help. He loosened the cap on the toothpaste a few turns. They’re all mean. Katherine’s already half over the edge. If she loses it. Oh God! Why can’t they.?

Unlocking his hands, David swatted at a bowl of apples on the corner of the counter. She’ll have fruit flies for company, no problem. He hopped down from his perch, “Hey, Marty, will you get out of there, I have to take a leak!”
With a snarl Martin slammed a fist at the tube and sent cap and toothpaste squirming into the sink.

Chapter 12

12

Anglican

Cowgirls

MAUDE

Maude was having trouble feeling voluptuous. Turtled in her old lamb jacket in the back of the cab, she wasn’t even comfortable. “Is it possible to have some heat back here?”

“What is the matter with you, lady?” The driver’s voice cracked high and querulous over the rumbling dispatcher. “Do you not like how I drive this car?”

“Well, no, that wasn’t what I said. But, as a matter of fact, why are we going this way? South on Mount Pleasant and then Jarvis down to.”

“You do not like this taxi car, lady? Maybe you would like to get out and have another one?” What should have been brown limpid pools glared over the back of the seat.

“I didn’t say. Watch the road!” Maude swayed as the cab lurched toward the curb and a line of parked cars.

“Get out! This car is stopped. You will get out!” He twisted in his seat, groping for the handle to the rear door.

“Oh, now for pete’s sake, look here, I didn’t.” Her remonstrating hand was slapped from the back of the seat.

“Police! You will not talk to me, lady. I have rights in this country. You think because you are born here you can make me what to do. But yes, I have a licence. You cannot!” He grabbed up the radio microphone, “Police!”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake! And I wonder why I never go out.” With a grip on fur and purse, Maude hauled herself from the cab in a fury, yelled, “Racist jerk!” and slammed the door. When the window began to roll down, she jabbed an imperious arm at the traffic, “Go run a light!” and kicked at the fender as the car squealed away.

Onto the sidewalk, into the people, Maude broke into a sweat – shame for screaming in the street like that – then recognized the corner of Bathurst and Bloor. How the hell did we get over here? Probably the only place in the city he knows how to find. Oh, well, lots of loose cabs.

She tugged the lamb to her neck, faced the traffic and raised an arm. And to think that all I asked was for a little heat.

BENA & KATYA

Bena rotated like a faulty ballerina in a frocked old gown of painted chiffon cut in cobwebbed layers drooled with brilliants and plunged to the waist in back. Her brass hair was pulled up in a wild topknot and fenced with a fillet of gold wire and enamel. Katya, in box pleats and a sweater set, sat hunched on the toilet seat, praying to a pair of grey suede pumps and sticking pink bunion pads to the soles of her feet. A doughnut of pantyhose sat on the bathmat.

“What did you bring to wear to.” Katya looked up and slammed the lids of her eyes shut tight.

Bena looked down at the grey suede shoes, the yellow box of moleskin, and smiled, “You are good to wear shoes, Katya, but the sweaters. Perhaps you have a nice blouse and.”

“Bena, Bena, Bena, perhaps they will be nice and just shoot us at the door. She said ‘informal’. I told you that.” Katya dared another look, “I knew you’d do this. She knew you’d do this. She doesn’t even know you and she knew you’d do this. Why do you do this?”

Bena focused down her nose at the roll of pantyhose, “What is informal, Katya? To be informal among strangers, that is not in good taste, Katya.”

Katya thought of trunkfuls of moths, a chorusline of flappers, rubber kewpie dolls and the Duchess of Windsor, the old one, all madness and bones, and nodded her head, “This is good taste. Fortunate strangers.”

“You are sarcastic, Katya.” Bena raised an admonitory finger and two thick ornaments of German silver slid the length of her forearm and chimed. “But it is not your fault that I am right. It is so. Your blood does not yet understand duty.”

Katya leaned over her own thighs with a grunt to snatch the roll of pantyhose from the mat and spoke through her teeth, “Go phone for a tumbrel, Bena.”

PAUL

It was early, the diningroom behind etched glass and ferns looked busy, but only a handful of non-eaters smoked and drank at the long black bar. Paul waved two fingers at the blond crewcut who looked up from slicing limes, who recognized him, winced and went to make a double manhattan. Paul waited for his drink, then he hooked his right heel to the rung of a barstool, curled a cheek on the black rubber seat and hung his left leg to the floor, “Y’know, I doubt there’s a man alive can plant both cheeks on a barstool and not look like an out-of-work drag queen. Men just don’t look. manly, with both feet off the ground. Know what I mean?”

The bartender, who was proud of his ability to hold the lotus on any length of stool, pressed his palms to the bar and leaned for a look down Paul’s blue leather leg to his blue leather boot and said, “They say the Queen Mother stands just like that when she gets into the gin. Safer for old hips, I guess. Care for another cocktail?”

“Uum. You know, you really are a gorgeous piece of flesh. Makes it such a tragedy that blonds go off so badly at thirty-two. Still, you’ll have a trade. I will just have another one of these if you can be a quick little bun. And then I must skate. Off to a clamour of brass and women with horns, mustn’t miss any overtures.”

“The opera?” asked the bartender who was thinking of a dyke bar in a warehouse but preferred the appearance of culture.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised.”

BEA & TILLIE & KATHERINE
& MARTIN & DAVID

“You ride up front with Beatrice,” Tillie gave Martin a hard look and a pat on the arm, “and get a grip on yourself, we’ve enough trouble here without you adding to it. David and I’ll ride shotgun on Katherine and see she doesn’t make a break for it.”

David held the car door as Tillie handed her granddaughter into the backseat with a bit of a shove and followed her in, then he shut the door gently, rounded the trunk and climbed in behind Beatrice, “Know how to get there, Bea?”

“David, I don’t even know where we’re going!” She batted her hands on the steering wheel in frustration, “This is all a mistake, I’m sure of it. Mother, we can’t carry on this way, we.”

“I’d say right at that corner,” Tillie’s finger shot over the back of the seat, “straight across Dundas, right onto Bay, down and around and we’re there. Wouldn’t you think, David?”

“Yup, just as easy as that, Bea, and I know a spot we can leave the car, a little private lot in behind that new what-d’y call-it hotel, it’s always empty after five.”

“Oh no, now, I’m not leaving this car to get towed! Or worse. Oh no, we’d better just.”

“Look, dear,” Tillie’s voice became placating, though no less firm, “you and I, we’ll just stop in for twenty minutes or so, pop in for a look and then we’ll get on our way and the youngsters can find their own way home when it’s all over and done with. They might use a good walk. David’ll see to Katherine, won’t you, David? And Martin. They can always take a taxi if they. Well, if it comes to that. Now you just drive the car and stop fussing.”

“Oh, I can’t.”

“Yes you can. And if you don’t, I’ll tell Martin here about the time you were in the choir and stood up for your little solo and your skirt.”

“Alright!” with a lurch the old Ford left the curb.

In even the thickest fog of self-absorption, Martin could hear his name and grabbing the dash to keep his face off the windshield he glanced at Bea, “You sing?”

“She never sang again.”

“Mother! I’m driving the darned car, we’re going to the darned reception and I’m. Darned! if I’m going to listen to you make any more fun of me. So dry up, please!”

“Yes, dear.” Tillie grinned to herself and squeezed Katherine’s hand.

“Gran?” Katherine tried shaking her head again, but it felt like plaster and nothing moved.

“Relax, dear, nothing important. Your mother’s doing fine, Martin’s got his eye out for street signs, haven’t you, Martin, and David’s right here to see you through. Right, David?”

“Sure. It’s gonna be a cakewalk, Kath, all you need to do is smile big and say thankyou, thankyou, thankyou. Nothing to be nervous about, people are gonna be there to have a good time, look at the bank, look at your painting, have a couple of drinks and be nice, that’s all. Clear sailing.”

“Sailing. Rope. Oh, God!”

“Never mind. Listen,” and David leaned to whisper in her ear, “you keep it together and I will find you a nice big vodka in a wineglass when we get there. Okay?”

Katherine managed to find his hand in his lap and give it a grateful squeeze, not noticing the fingers were crossed.

ELIZABETH

Elizabeth hated circulating at parties, she thought a good chair on something of a platform more suitable than this wandering about having to introduce oneself and quite possibly wasting time on people who weren’t anybody.

George’s conversations invariably deteriorated into some sort of man-chat that made golf, politics and money all sound the same game, so she couldn’t bear sticking to his elbow past the hellos. What she needed was a companion who shared her interests, someone who understood her desire to be useful in a sensible way, a young man, perhaps, who, like herself, cared about helping people to improve themselves, directing their attention to the arts, encouraging manners, developing a sense of place, perhaps offering advice to the unfortunate, “With all this marvellous grey,” Elizabeth swept an arm at the marble and glass as she spoke to a woman in a yellow silk two-piece, “I chose discretion,” she touched a hand to the bodice of her fine stone grey challis, “thinking it the better part of elegance, in this case. Yellow’s a lovely colour. Daffodils. Spring. D’you find silk comfortable at this time of year? I’ve had to give up skirts, bunch at the waist so badly, don’t they? You must excuse me, I see friends. You have a lovely time.”

MAUDE & GEORGE

“George, you old basket, look who’s come to the shindy!” Maude rapped her brother-in-law’s elbow just enough to disturb the glass in his fist and spread her hands in mocking surprise.

George had finally figured out what Brigadier Monteith was on about, in a long rambling description of a gorgeous young filly he’d been tipped to at Greenwood – it was teat in the plural that gave it away – when he felt the danger to his scotch and turned. “My God, Maudie! What the devil are you doing here?” He beamed and opened his arms in a gesture of embrace which was the limit of his allowance of intimacy in a public place, but he meant it.

“Lizzie whimpered and whined and I said no and then. Well, things started happening around my place and I suppose I had a change of heart. Or maybe I just found it in the fridge with the kettle. So, I pulled on my party suit,” Maude glanced down at her own bosom, “it’s a bit rusty, eh? Rounded up the lamb,” she shrugged her grey persian shoulders, “and flagged a cab.” Up went an arm with fingers extended, she looked at her fingers, “Two cabs, George.”

“I’ll get you a double. Come along to the bar, Monteith’s being filthy-minded about horses, or hookers, or something, we’ll leave him to the boys.” He nodded his excuses over one shoulder and began to steer Maude toward the caterer’s bar which stood in the gap between the soaring marble interior wall and the side street-wall of glass.

“Does Elizabeth know you’ve come? She’ll be tickled.”

“To gagging, when she spots these Oxfords. Nope, I haven’t seen her yet. I expect she looks nice and then some.”

George’s progress of smiles and nods swept an obsequious path through the crowd of guests and only a gasp here, a raised brow there, acknowledged the incongruity of his elegantly-suited arm laid on the shoulder of what must surely be a strayed cleaning lady. Maude smiled merrily at everyone and hoped the smell of mothballs in her jacket hadn’t completely dissipated. “You’ve a bit of a crush here, George. You giving away stock options with the drinks?”

“Apparently it’s a social fluke, one of those gaps in the calendar when everyone and his dog has a couple of free hours between the soup and the salad. So Darla says, my secretary, she’s off counting heads somewhere, figures they all booked tables for nine o’clock and got bored drinking alone. I made her promise to say nothing of the kind to Elizabeth. It’s her do.” He gave Maude a surreptitious squeeze, “I’m awfully glad you’ve come, she will be too. Here we are.” Unasked, the barman placed a freshly-filled glass on a napkin, raised an eyebrow, and at a nod from George, repeated himself.

Maude relaxed in a long, grateful swallow, grinned at her brother-in-law, waggled her glass and said, “Happy banking, George.” She glanced about, but gave it up, unable to see much more than shoulders from her height, “Speaking of everybody and his dog, I do hope Lizzie doesn’t mind, but I took the liberty of inviting someone myself.”

KATYA & BENA

The luxury of riding lasted five minutes before Katya felt the weight of the taxi’s ceiling pressing out her pleasure. She insisted over Bena’s squeal on leaving the cab a long block from the Imperial Trust, paying and tipping without thought for Bena’s share, thinking only of the need for air, room to move and breathe, the possibility of breaking cover and running for her life.

“Why must we walk, Katya, you with your feet?” Bena stomped onto the sidewalk with a shimmy that was intended to free the fringe of her black Spanish shawl from the rhinestones in the small of her back.

Katya plucked the fringe loose, keeping a hand on her friend’s shoulder that she shouldn’t see the glass gems tumbling into the gutter. “Because it was too close in that backseat.”

“Too close? But that is why we are driven, to become close to this place where I will meet Mister George Preston.”

“Stand still. Who’s. Oh, yes. No, Bena, close, small, airless, not a nice place to be. There, you’re unstuck, now walk. I can’t get my breath in places like that.”

“Acch, yes, I have forgotten, the little sickness, my Katya, perhaps this is because you dress in this little way, these little sets of sweaters, so tight with nothing to float,” Bena managed a skip into her halting gait that spun chiffon and lace in a billow to her waist, “and you wear no jewels to grace the lily.”

“God, woman! Gild the lily.”

“Gild, guilt, whatever, Katya, you were happy in your rubber boots today, even if I was not. You are a crazy lady, as I have said before. You will go in the streets wearing one of those bags of a dresses you make with two stitches, you will carry bags of plastic and dirty string and wrap those terrible Rudolphs on your shoulders and then put huge, ugly pigman’s boots on your feet and have a nice day, but in this. this.” her hands flailing the air, Bena’s mouth pursed in disgust, “Putz! this Missus Schoolteacher clothes, you are not happy on your way to a party.” She clapped her hands with a clang of bracelets, “I will not say it that you should have listened to me, Katya.”

“Bena!” Exasperation brought dizziness and she had to hold a sign post through a pair of deep breaths. “It’s you always natters on about a nice skirt, a nice jacket, a nice.”

“Oh yes, but what you have is not that nice.”

“You gypsy bitch!”

Bena’s eyes sparkled with affection, “Ah, so you will call names again. I think you are feeling better, my Katya. Come,” she clasped Katya’s hand and set off in her hackney glide, “we will go and transport these party people.”

“Transcend.”

“Whatever.”

BEA & TILLIE & MARTIN
& KATHERINE & DAVID

By the time Bea had finished checking the door locks, Martin’s anticipation had cantered into urgency, he wheeled and clattered his slender black wingtips on the pavement, urging, hurrying, patting and tugging, “I can feel it, I can feel it, we’re on a roll, this is the little soirée of the season, I just know it! It’s one of the magic moments, it is, it’s party-page time – ‘Seen enjoying, left to right, blah, blah Martin Knight blah blah smashing success!’ – Come come come come come, Bea it’s safe, leave it, none of these wonderful people are into car kitsch, they’re not about to be caught dead in a rolling saddleshoe.”

Bea’s blood dropped and a chill ribbon of sweat lined the velvet drum at her brow.

“David, will you manage drinks for these girls, like a good boy? Here we go!” Martin shoved on a bronze lion and waved Tillie, Bea, Katherine and David into the grey stone cavern of the Imperial Trust. He nodded acquaintance with a commissionaire in serge and silver braid, and with a circle of his hand indicating his friends, mouthed ‘mine’, relieving them of further identification.
“Now relax, David, bar’s over there and for God’s sake be sensible,” Martin tipped an ear in Katherine’s direction, “let’s keep to the fish course, there’s a nice chablis; I saw the caterers lug it in. She’s going to be on call, so let’s keep her vertical, no slurring and no yodelling. Okay? Once more, dear friends, into the breach, while I go and congratulate dear Elizabeth on our triumph.”

Chapter 13

13

Anglican

Cowgirls

DAVID

Without an appearance of anxiety, David stood by the bar and considered the horns of white wine or liquor. Vodka, and it’ll start blowing out her ears, I know it, I’ve been in this movie, she’ll forget her pleases and thankyous and some bluesuit’ll have to hear all about the evil of Adam cornering the apple market and she’ll blow smoke in people’s faces and there’s probably no smoking, but she’ll go Clint Eastwood and nobody’ll make her put it out and then she’ll notice the floor, she’ll never resist a stone floor and she’ll make us dance and. She’ll do it. David changed weight on his feet and cast a long look to the far side of the lobby at Katherine’s enormous painting suspended between what looked to him like Juliet’s balcony and the blank slabs of elevator doors. She’s up. She’s on the wall and she wants to party. She’ll blow up real good.

No. David blew out his breath and side-stepped to the end of the bar, to the rows of filled wine glasses. He clasped two stems in each hand, all white, no argument, he didn’t care, they’d take what they got, this was not going to turn into disaster. No, enough, he was not going to cater one more time to Katherine doing showtime. Nope, I’m out. She can hate me, I don’t care, she’s not getting live booze from me. She can say what she likes, my fingers were crossed, not my fault she didn’t notice. She can sip wine and be civilized like the rest of us, or I’m gone. I am anyway, this’s just a farewell party far as I’m concerned, I’m outta here, bon voyage! She already thinks she hates me, might as well hang for the sheep. And David threaded his way back through the chatting crowd, bearing the wine without danger in his large, steady hands.

BEA

Bea tried not to gulp at her wine. She could use a pail of icewater right now, nobody wore hats at a thing like this, what on earth had she been thinking of, where had she been for twenty years, nowhere, that’s where, but she read magazines for crying out loud, people didn’t even wear hats to church anymore, where on earth had she thought she was going? I’m mad, I must be, my own mother told me not to wear a hat and I did anyway. And she’s senile. I must be mad. I can’t hide it, there’s not a chair in the place. Where do you suppose the restrooms are? You can’t wear it in and come out without it, somebody’d find it and it’s too late, they’ve all seen it. Lord, it’s hot in here. I could shove it down a toilet tank. They’re laughing. You’re a fool.

A horrible flushing roared from her ears to her feet as Bea fought tears for balance, “David? Katherine? D’you have any idea where the ladies room might be?”

“Oh Mother, for God’s sake!”

“I need it. I’m a little winded and I’ve got.”

“A bladder the size of a pea! I don’t see why you don’t do diapers, just go free-range and slosh around in it.”

“Katherine! You just keep a decent tongue, young lady. I don’t think you need that drink. You’d better start behaving, or these people will put you right out in the street, they’re not about to put up with any of your lip, so you’d better straighten up. Now, do you know where the ladies room is?”

TILLIE & BEA
& KATHERINE & DAVID

“David,” Tillie had managed, with an absentminded hand from Katherine, to slip from her coat which she hung from the arm holding her stick, “David, ask that fellow there where Bea might find a restroom.” She spoke softly, indicating a boy bussing empty glasses with a tip of her head, “And ask if there’s somewhere we can leave our coats. I’ve a feeling this’s going to take longer than I thought.”

Something was up, something was in the air, she could feel it tickling the thin spotted skin on the backs of her hands, tingling the inside rims of her ears which had become so rigid with years they seldom even felt a wind. Well, it’s not my nose itching, so I guess I’ll not be kissing fools and it’s not my palms, so nobody’s going to throw money at me, though I can’t say I’d mind. It’s not for me, I’m too old and out of the game, the signals aren’t for me, for Katherine, I’ll bet, for David and Martin, maybe even Bea, something’s got to happen to her yet. I wouldn’t mind if there was some fun still for me, but I doubt I’ve got the strength for it, it wants energy to stick your oar in, it needs desire and desire’s got sex in it and I’m not sure there’s any sex left in me. A little, I guess, enough to feel my ears and the back of my hand – I ought to feel the back of my hand for standing here thinking about sex at my age, at any age, you disgusting old fool.

Tillie chuckled to herself. Peacocks, she thought, and saw again a yard full of gorgeous strutting birds dipping and staring. She saw Stewart’s blue eyes lit with pride and mischief and giggled, thinking she should rub her nose, but when the handle of her ebony stick bumped her chin, the peacock feathers returned to wools and silks and the blue eyes were David’s.

“He says they’re back beyond the wall somewhere, the staff washrooms, and there’s a girl back there keeping an eye on coats and whatnot. Give me yours and I’ll wander Bea back that way, keep her out of trouble. You be all right with Katherine? Marty should be back in a minute, once he’s sucked up to Missus Whatzis. Okay?”

“Thank you, David, it’s so nice to have you around putting up with our fuss. You.” and she remembered that he was pulling out, removing himself from Katherine’s life, her own life, and she knew she didn’t want it to happen, couldn’t let it happen, another man gone like her Stewart was gone, like Bea’s husband was gone, like all the men seemed to go. She was sad and hurt and angry all in a burst in her heart and she felt a rush of heat course through her blood, the tingling of her hands and ears became a pulse and she knew she felt desire and the strength of desire; she wasn’t finished yet, there was fun to be had here somewhere, she could feel it, “Do it, David, go get Bea dried out. Take my coat, make her give you hers and try your damndest to lose that hat, Martin was useless, but I know she sees it was a mistake now and she might surrender. Take your time, get her another glass of wine and steer her around a bit, keep her away from us. I’ve a few words for Katherine and we don’t need an audience. I’ll try to get some more food into her, so we’ll likely be over by the cheese and crackers if you need us. See if you can corner a banker for Bea, she likes navy blue and money, it shouldn’t be that hard. Don’t rush.” Tillie turned to her daughter with a jerk of her thumb, “Bea, go with David. And behave.”

KATHERINE & TILLIE

I’m comatose. Katherine’s hands clasped her glass in a prayer to hold the heave of her chest. I am. Screaming at my mother doesn’t count, I can do that in my sleep, from the grave, for Christ’s sake. I’m cocooned. Here’s a roomful of people, nice people, kind people even, maybe, people who might even like me, as if I cared, but I do, well I don’t want them to hate me and yell at me, no I don’t want that, so why do I feel wrapped in cotton wool behind plate glass? Glass wool, prickly humid stuff, pink insulation crawling under the skin of my hands – God don’t let me sweat now! Don’t scratch. Looks like you’ve got bugs, or impetigo and you won’t get to play with the other kids. Oh shit! This’s hell, autism must be horrible like this, my mind’s pinned to a pad and my wings don’t work.

Fucking hell! It’s a major moment of my life, the biggy for Christ’s sake, it is. I’m on a wall in a bank in the Big City. Not just some bank, either, not the dinky little credit union in bloody Strawbridge full of waitress’s tips and used car loans, no way, this’s your tasteful chartered institution crammed with old liquor money and blue-rinse stocks – Jesus, woman, it’s where you always wanted to be. Yes. Well. Yes, but I never thought I’d get here this way; I should have been here by birth, somebody was supposed to have discovered I was the real, true, beautiful heiress lost on a picnic in Muskoka, found and raised as their own by simpletons, only to be restored at last to my oak-panelled Daddy in time to come out in organza and marry some twig off the Family Tree. Shit. Instead, I’ve had to bust my own ass to get here, perform like the grinder’s monkey, tin cup and all, just to get them to take me seriously. And how serious is that? Cute little beast, give her a nickel – and dime me to death to decorate their walls and match the couch. Christ, not even the couch, they want pictures to match the mats they pick. Pick me! Pick me! Please pick me for your friend, look how hard I’m trying. Just take a look; those are my tits on the wall, my rocks. D’you even know how to try? God girl, ease up.

“Katherine? Are you all right, dear?”

“Oh, Gran,” Katherine’s fingers left off twisting the tails of lavender scarf and clasped her grandmother’s hand, “I hate this, I just hate it.”

“Believe it or not, dear, I understand. I made hats for them once upon a time, you know, and they never really let you forget it, no matter how good you are. Doesn’t matter if you’re out there square on your own two feet making them look like royalty, they’re bound to remember you for it. There’s the rare one without envy who can’t be happy enough for you, but by and large they’d as soon think you’re up on your hind legs and they were born queens.”

“Jesus, Gran, you’re one of them. I don’t mean like that, but you belong here.”

“No I don’t. Watch your tongue. What’s belong mean? People belong to their attitudes. Look at your mother, look at Bea, there’s an attitude for you, beaten down since I don’t know when. And why? Near as I can figure out she’s always thought she’s only half human without a man beside her and the only man she ever really wanted there was my Stewart, her own father, only one she ever thought good enough. She settled for your father, long as he lasted, because he wasn’t far off being Stewart, same kind of gentleness and humour, still had a boy in him, a good boy, and he had something like the mystery in him Stewart had; for the life of me, I don’t think either Bea or I ever knew what those men were thinking about, except when they looked straight at us. And god knows, I was wrong about that half the time.” Tillie whistled a long sigh through her teeth, “I don’t know, maybe I’m full of bullfeathers, but I don’t think I’d ever have been a happy woman without Stewart to keep me company, he was the best company, and I’ve managed on the memories since he’s gone. Now they’re starting to warp on me and I wonder if I can keep my feet. I wish I’d thought of peacocks when he was alive.”

“What is this about peacocks? Ma said something before about you and peacocks. What.”

“Ah, never mind that now. The point is, I think, that she hasn’t had my good luck, didn’t get to keep her man and that’s why she’s got an attitude that sours lemons.”

“Gran! For God’s sake, it’s the end of the twentieth century, you’d better not let people hear you spout that kind of sexist bull. reaction. Germaine Greer’d bite your tongue. You need a man to be happy? That’s blasphemy!”

“Katherine, dear, I’m not talking about sex. I’m talking about company, companionship, that one bit of comfort that makes life worth all the fear and the pain; the friend you don’t have to be dressed up for even when you are. And you’re right, those feminist women are right, it doesn’t have to be a man and maybe it doesn’t have to be just one person, but for me it was, Katherine. Maybe I’m simple, it certainly all seemed a lot simpler, and all I ever wanted for company, besides my own self, was your grandfather, and he happened to be a man. And I guess I was ready for the rest of it, for the sex, when I found him. So, if that makes me a sexist old dinosaur, there’s nothing I can do about it now.

“And I do believe Bea’s pretty much like me, though I won’t say that to anyone but you; she just didn’t have the luck and after, well, some streak in her decided it was her fault – she had some women friends who let her think so – and all her memories went sour. Those damned Lettie girls with too much alum in their pickles and that nasty piece of work, Bess Everett!” Tillie shook her head and thumped her stick on the slate floor, “Lord, Katherine, let’s not keep repeating ourselves. Come, we’ll go see if they’ve got a good dry bit of cheddar cheese and a water biscuit, I feel starved of a sudden.”

“But.”

“They’ll find us. Come on, give me your arm.”

MAUDE & GEORGE

“A man, Maude? Is he with you?”

“No, George, she isn’t. Really, I’m not sure it’s likely she’ll turn up.”

“Did you give her name to Percy at the door?”

“That his name? Silly old soak’s had a blue rinse. No, I gave her my invitation card, thought it might be best considering her wardrobe. If she does show, she might have a friend with her.”

“Then how did you get past Percy? He’s been around for ever, but you never.”

“I told him I was your sister-in-law.” Maude snorted, “Believe me, George, I can prove that when I need to; just puckered up like Lizzie smelling turned fish and told him his buttons needed a polish.”

“Oh Maudie,” George wagged his head, “I’ll have to see he gets a decent drink after all this.”

“How about me? I’m the one had to be Elizabeth.”

“Now? Should you?”

“George! Don’t you come Little Beth on me.”

“I’m sorry, of course.” George raised his chin to the barman and tipped it toward Maude who exchanged her empty glass for a fresh one. “Who is she then, they, maybe, these people you’ve invited? I didn’t think you knew anyone. What did you do, Maude, join an aerobics class, or something? Tai chi in the park?” He took her elbow, “Come, we must promenade, look as though we cared. You’ve not taken up the guitar, have you?”

Taking a long swallow, she grinned up at George, “A motorbike gang. Unhuh, the uh. Satan’s Angels, George. I’m a moll. I think that’s what I am. This jacket reverses to a Jolly Roger drippin’ with blood.”

“A wolf in old lamb.”

“Better than old mutton in old lamb.” Maude threw a skip into her step and was pleased she had come and wished, not for the first time that George were hers. “No, no clubs. A woman I thought was Italian left a bag I thought was drugs, but wasn’t, it was apples, crabapples, in my yard, and she wasn’t, isn’t, Italian, she’s Finnish, from Finland, though that must be back a bit because she’s no accent to speak of, and we got talking and. Well, Elizabeth called while she was there, to remind me about this,” Maude waved her drink at the throng, “though I don’t believe it was a reminder, because I certainly don’t remember her telling me in the first place, and she was such a nag, you know the way she is, nagging on about my clothes, and about you too, by the way, George, you’re drinking far too much, apparently, and there was Katya, that’s her name, the woman in my yard, well she was in the kitchen when Lizzie phoned, and I just thought she might wear her rubberboots to this clambake and put Queen Bess’s nose right out of joint for good. And she told me she has a friend, a gypsy princess type who’d be the cherry on top, so I couldn’t help myself,” Maude raised her shoulders in a huge show of Gallic helplessness, “I gave her my ticket to the ball.”

Rubberboots? George’s hand jerked hard enough to slop the dregs of scotch and ice over his wrist; his eyes were back behind a tree, peeking at the sight of his wife and his woman-friend meeting head on in a foot-stomping, arm-waving collision in front of the Art Gallery. He was picking at the bark of the tree, nervous, but amused by the wailing and gnashing of teeth, thinking the contest well-matched; Elizabeth’s bag swinging in heavy arcs from her shoulder, a couple of young men defending her back; Bena curvetting in a whirl of capes, a stocky woman planted at her side wearing. Rubberboots!

He must have spoken aloud, because Maude nodded and said, “Unhuh, black rubber farmer boots with brick red soles. Katya said she wore them to make her friend crazy, she’s a nag about clothes, like Lizzie, and they were meeting at the Art Gallery to take a look at the Blakes, so she. Are you okay, George?” She couldn’t see over heads, but she guessed he was trying to see the door, “I doubt she’ll come, George, really, it was just wishful thinking. Besides, even if she does, she’ll be decent, she’s not that crazy.”
“Oh good.” George could see the back of Percy’s serge uniform hat as it moved up to the door. He could imagine Percy’s pink wrinkled old hand on a bronze lion as it pulled. He could see the thick grey glass swing inward and he could mutter coincidence, George, coincidence, when a short, thickly-built woman in a dark sweater-set rather tentatively poked a paper square in front of her. And when she was impatiently prodded forward from the shadows behind, he moaned, “Oh, God, Maude.”

Chapter 14

14

Anglican

Cowgirls

DAVID & BEA

“Bea! Good Lord, I’ve just remembered.” David jerked his hand from his mother-in-law’s arm and slapped his forehead, “I invited Paul Magarry to come and forgot to tell the guy at the door. I wonder.” He turned to scan the crowd anxiously, perhaps Paul had gotten himself in. “I’d better go.” Thinking that Paul was quite capable of raising hell if he was hassled by the doorman, David felt a small panic of responsibility and made a quick choice.

“There’s the girl with the coats. Here, take Tillie’s and she can tell you where the washrooms are, the girl can. Okay? All right? I have to talk to the doorman. I hope Paul hasn’t turned up already. We’d have heard it, though.” He paused and focused on Bea who looked forlorn and, he thought, a bit like a coat rack. “You’ll manage. I’ll come right back and wait for you here and then we can do the room together. Okay? Here, give me your glass, you don’t need that. And hang onto the check tags, or whatever the girl gives you, we want to be able to ditch this popstand when it gets too much. Okay? I’ll be right back, I promise.” David turned and turned again, “Oh. and you could leave your hat with the coats.” And he turned once more to work his way across the floor.

ELIZABETH & MARTIN & DAVID

“Well? Where is she, Martin? I rather expected you to have been here on time, before these people began to arrive. I had to be here to make sure things were done properly, you can’t trust these caterers to have sense, and I expected you would have her here to show to me, to introduce us, that is. I mean, people have asked who made the Art and I have nothing to tell them. Her name, of course, but nobody’s ever heard of her – so what good is that? And that c.v. you sent me hasn’t a name on it worth repeating, I mean, where has she hung that anyone cares? and I haven’t even seen this person. Is there anything interesting I should know? Is she challenged in some brilliant way? She’s not from Hong Kong? Is she dreadfully old? No, she’s young, you said. Too young, perhaps? No. She’s not dying from one of these new diseases, is she?”

“I’m sorry, Mrs Preston, Elizabeth, I’m sorry, we just couldn’t be earlier. I did my best. I had planned for six-thirty, I had her dressed for six-thirty – a really smart little Sung thing I picked out – and there we were, waiting for the car and who should turn up on her doorstep unannounced but her mother and her very elderly grandmother! A lovely woman, charming, a grand old lady, but frail, you see, quite worn by the trip and we just couldn’t rush away, it would’ve been cruel, she was so thrilled to see Katherine again, you know how they are. And who knows, with the very old it could always be the last time, eh. I pressed Katherine to hurry, I knew you’d be here with all this responsibility and no one to help, but she insisted. well, actually her mother did, that the old lady have time to catch her breath, it wasn’t for me to say. But I said you couldn’t be expected to be kept waiting and just put my foot down and pushed them all into the car and we came at a mad dash.”

“What? D’you mean to say the grandmother’s here, too?”

“Uh, yes. Katherine’s grandmother, her mother, as well, nicely dressed, the grandmother, she’s.”

“God, Martin! She’s not going to collapse on us, die, or something, this old woman, is she? I won’t have that, this’s an important social event and I won’t have these people creating any sort of fuss. Artists! I knew I should have had you show her to me before. I told George, I said.” Elizabeth broke on a dry cough and her eyes winked in memory, “George said pants, trousers, he said a suit, I’m sure of it! He saw this girl, this woman, whatever, this afternoon, he said she was wearing.”

“No, no, no, no, not to worry, not to worry, she just likes to dress. uh. up, smartly tailored things. It’s all right, she’s fine, very presentable, oh yes. Look, I’ll get her and bring her over right now. Okay? She’s right. Oh, she was there a minute ago. I’ll find her, won’t take a minute. And I really do want to say again, Elizabeth, that I think you’ve created a marvellous event here, people are just.enchanted! Back in a flash.”

Pouring sweat, Martin prayed his Grey Flannel wouldn’t let him down, not admitting to himself that he was wearing women’s Secret as a fail-safe, and he reached to his breast pocket before thinking better of it and rummaged instead into an inside pocket for a white linen handkerchief to mop at his hairline. “David, where on earth is Katherine? Are you drinking both of those? You cannot get shit-faced, this is important. Where is she? Elizabeth’s beside herself with excitement. Give me one of those, you look like a lush. Thank you, where is she? Why aren’t you with her? I asked you to watch her.”

“Christ, you’re an ass, Marty. I haven’t the foggiest fucking idea, I’m not her keeper, you are. Maybe she figured out what an asshole you are and left.”

“No! David, she wouldn’t. Would she? No, this’s too important, it’s her whole career, even she’s not that stupid.”

“No, she’s not that stupid.” David looked pensive. “She does get bored though.” And he was suddenly bored with teasing Martin, bored with Martin’s flapping panic, bored with his own anxiety over Paul’s arrival. It all felt like a cheap fabrication, an artificial problem soaked in fake concern and none of it was his, not really, it was Katherine’s problem, not his. No, I’m wrong, it’s not fake anxiety, it’s real all right, even if it’s wandering, it’s real, my collar’s shrunk two sizes in two minutes, but. Shit! Why am I stuck again in a situation I didn’t set up? Because of Katherine. Yes. And that’s why I’m getting out of it.

Stiffening, his shoulders rising, David purposefully scanned the room, “She’s there, in front of that buffet set-up, with Tillie. You go get her and leave me out of it. I’m busy.” And he pushed away again for the door.

GEORGE & MAUDE & ELIZABETH

“They’re here, Maude, your guests have come. Oh God!”

“What’s wrong, George, you going to be sick? Where’s your hankie? Here, I’ve got one somewhere.” Maude rummaged in a pocket of the lamb producing a crumple of white lawn and lace and a peppermint that fell unnoticed to the floor, “Here. She hasn’t got those rubbers on, has she? I told her to say she was in the sheep trade up Caledon way, just a batty old cork up to her hips in sheepshit and money, but I didn’t think she’d do it. Wipe your face.”

“No, she’s not. Thanks. No, she’s all right, it’s not her, it’s her friend. God, Maude, you’ve got to help me with this. Please. Come on, we have to get over there quick.” Propelling his sister-in-law with a hand at the back of her neck, George steered a line for the door. “We’ve got to stop her before Elizabeth.”

“George!” Maude dug her heels into the slate which slowed but didn’t stop them, “Tell me, or I’ll holler.”

“Your friend’s friend,” he continued to push, “she’s a friend of mine.”

“Oh dear.”

“Yes. Honestly though, Maude, just a friend, somebody to talk to, there’s nothing more to it, believe me. But Elizabeth, you know Elizabeth, she’d never understand, especially not Bena.”

“Bena! Yes, I remember, that’s her friend, Katya’s. Oh hell, Hungarian princess. Jesus, George! Let’s move.” Maude picked up her Oxfords and lowered her head into the throng.

George attempted smiles at a few guests disgruntled by Maude’s elbows and hurried to keep up. “It’s even worse, Maudie, they met this afternoon in front of the Gallery, a screaming match. – Excuse me, I’m so sorry. – Elizabeth and Bena and your friend was there, in her boots. I saw them.”

“Does she know?”

“Who?”

“Lizzie! Does she know about this Bena?”

“No, she can’t. God, I hope not. It had to be chance. She’d have raised bloody hell by now and she didn’t even tell me about the fight. I don’t wonder, it was pretty awful.”

“Who won?”

“It looked like a draw.”

“Jesus, George, rematch.”

“Exactly, and worse. We’ve got to get them out of here.”

“George!” Elizabeth loomed imperious and annoyed and caused her husband to lose the very last of his drink to his shirt cuff. “She has finally arrived, I’m told. Late, but here nonetheless. You must stand with me, I’ve sent young Martin to.” Her eyes lit on her husband’s hand on a lamb collar, “Who.?”

“Who?” Geese chased down George’s spine and sucked up his breath. The lamb turned under his hand.

“Hello, Lizzie, dear, thought I’d pop in for a short one. Who’s here, dear?” Maude grinned at her sister and reached a finger to stroke the grey challis, “You look nice.” Dropping her eyes in a show of embarrassment, she shuffled and sidled her scuffed old lace-ups until, forced to keep pace, her sister had turned her back to the door. “Sorry for these, Lizzie, all I can squeeze into these days. My own fault, should have gone shopping with you when you offered. You were right as usual. Who’s here?”

Elizabeth didn’t believe the humility, but didn’t have time to figure it out, “She is, the woman you said wore pants, George.” A hard eye forced her husband into a fresh sweat. “The artist woman, girl, whatever, the one who painted that.” And she tossed her head at Katherine’s great granite rocks on the grey marble wall. “She’s come.”

“Oh, thank God!” George blew his breath in relief and, fumbling her handkerchief over his face, shot Maude a sidelong look of appeal.

Taken aback, Elizabeth was becoming suspicious, though not sure of what, “I didn’t think it mattered that much to you, George, my little effort. And why are you here, Maude? After your behaviour on the telephone, I’m not sure I care to see you. And where were you two going, anyway?”

“We.”

“We were looking for you, dear, so I could say hello. Weren’t we, George? And now I have and I know how you have to get on with your queen-of-the-valley thing, so I won’t keep you, I’ll just go.” she slipped George a look and tipped her glass in the direction of the door, “.circulate and speak to people while you and George tend to your artist. Okay? Good enough? Fine.” She patted her brother-in-law’s arm, “It’d be nicely done if you were ‘way over there by the painting when you introduce her to people. Don’t you think? Yes. I’ll see you later. And in case I tire,” the hand that was meant lightly to touch her heart clanked her glass on a button, “I’ll just slip away in a cab. Don’t you worry, George, I can see to it.”

Elizabeth shot a finger at the glass, “You don’t need more of that!” Her lips pursed, she took in Maude from head to shoes and her nostrils flared, “And I’d rather you not tell people who you are. Come along, George, I want this artist person to tell us what she really means.”

Maude smiled at her sister’s nose and headed off for a quick freshener before tackling George’s rescue.

Elizabeth spun on a heel and collided with a tall young man who, though grim and unapologetic, looked familiar, and a backward glance she couldn’t resist reminded her of the long legs she’d tripped into earlier in the day. “How did he get here? Who is he?”

George, eager to steer her to the far side of the room, answered off the top, “Oh, somebody’s husband I expect, dear. Come along.”
Remembering that guard, that dubious Paul fellow, patting the young man’s. jeans, Elizabeth sighed, “And the wife’ll be the last one to know.”

Chapter 15

15

Anglican

Cowgirls

TILLIE & KATHERINE

Ruminating over cheeses and biscuits and men, Tillie mumbled a chunk of sharp cheddar laid on a small bath oliver and contemplated a cheeseknife she had picked from the table. Cutting into the cheddar, the sharpness of the blade had surprised her, but it was the onyx black handle which took her attention; plastic, she supposed, though its hardness and weight were pleasing in her hand. “Katherine.” It was something recent that nibbled her memory, something about black and shiny and. Yes. “Katherine, dear, the black stone you saw in your painting, the one on the easel, was it onyx? No, not onyx, that’s not what I mean. Obsidian! Yes, obsidian – hard and black and brittle. Was it obsidian?”

“Uh, maybe, Gran.” A trickle of excitement had begun to percolate through Katherine’s stunned isolation and she was suddenly anxious to find Martin, to have him conduct her to the centre of attention where she belonged; it was, after all, her painting on that wall. “D’you see Martin anywhere?”

“Volcanic glass, translucent darkness. Yes, there he comes now, speaking of brittle.” Tillie fingered the cheeseknife, “You know, I believe they used it for blades, ceremonial daggers and such. The ancients did, for sacrifices and what have you. Hello, Martin, d’you know obsidian?”

Agitated, clasping Katherine’s shoulders to draw her away, Martin paused to frown at Tillie, “Is that a Klein? Nina Ricci? Not one of your old Yardley smells?”

“Human sacrifices, when necessary, Katherine.” Tillie waggled the knife, “Very sharp, obsidian.”

Bewildered, Martin nodded, smiled and pulled Katherine away in earnest, “I’ll have to get some. Come on, Dragon Lady wants you. Stay. Mrs Sutherland. David’s right here, somewhere, I.”

“Go away, Martin.” And Tillie turned back to make use of the knife again.

PAUL & BENA
& KATYA & DAVID & MAUDE

Paul hauled himself up the steps from the subway, blinking away wind gusts of grit, his throat closed on his gorge rising from the fume reek below. Managing a couple of mouthfuls of cool air, he began to relax, but his feet slapped the pavement when he meant to step lightly, so he stopped on the sidewalk in front of the bank and considered his condition – one more Manhattan had become a love affair with New York and he was drunk. Do I dare? I’m invited. Yah, by the husband of the wife who’s on the wall. That’s credentials. Those are. Yah. You’re pissed. Not so bad. Bet there’s an old bag or two bagged in a bigger bag than you’re bagged in. Bag on, Paulie-wog! Hey, and the Rubberboots and Whatsername are comin’ and they liked you. Yupper. And the Big Liz’s after your ass. She can’t have my ass. Well don’t tell her. She’ll treat you like the help. She treats everybody like the help. That’s true. Go for it.

Paul pulled, tottered, shoved on a bronze lion, the glass moved and he was through.

“We are invited by the sister of the wife of George Preston whose bank this is. Is it not so, Katya?” Bena’s hands flashed in the air before Percy’s face, “They are friends, old friends who have coffee together, the sister, not the wife. She is not a friend, but she is known to us. Is she not, Katya? And we have a ticket. You are a military man. You have ridden horses to war, I think.” Her fingertips brushed his breast, “And you have been very brave to own so many ribbons.”

“Bena, leave the man alone.” Katya interposed herself between her friend and the commissionaire, “Mr Preston’s sister-in-law, Maude Matthew, provided us with the invitation, though I believe she’s not able to come herself, and we.”

“Oh, she’s here.” Percy had always known the world would come to this – women in painted cobwebs wearing more tack than a grenadier’s horse, women criticizing the uniform, women without men to keep them in line, and foreign ones, too, these ones. He hadn’t wasted his career fighting to keep.

“Well, hello, hello, hello, my ladies of the pavement, you did come! And nicely turned out, I might add. What a marvellous costume. It’s. Bena. Am I right?”

“Aach, our young man, Katya, from this afternoon, from the Art Gallery of Ontario, he is here!”

“I can see, Bena, yes, hello. I’ve forgotten.”

“Paul Magarry.”

“Paul, yes, I didn’t know you were coming. You didn’t say.”

“Now hold on a minute here!” Percy knew he hadn’t defended the world for some sissy to wear blue leather pants, “I think you’re in the wrong part of town, mister. Nobody wants your kind around.”

“Paul!” But no one noticed David who closed his eyes and emptied his wine glass in a gulp.

“Nobody? This is not a nobody.” Bena reared in a backstep, grasped Paul’s hand and raised it in a cascade of bracelets, “This is a person who is close to the Mrs George Preston, I think you should know. This is the young man to whom she gives the keys of her car, to whom she trusts her Art of the Gallery of Ontario. He is her guest, I am sure of it.”

“Well, not really.” Paul tried a small shrug, felt his stomach heave and looked about in a panic, “Actually, the husband of the.”

“Paul.”

“Him!” His hand trapped in Bena’s, he wiggled his fingers to wave. “Jesus, David, just like magic. I knew this was a magic event.”

“So I’ve been hearing. What’s the problem?”

“May I ask who you are, sir?”

“David Bailey. That’s my wife on the wall over there and I invited my friend here. I’m sorry, I forgot to speak to you when we arrived, I was just coming to give you his name. Do we have a problem?”

“Well, he’s not dressed.”

“Katya Saarila! You came after all, I’m so glad.” Full of scotch and mischief, Maude swept up beaming, ready to make the most of a rare opportunity, “You dug me out of my yard, you see, you and the kettle. And you must be Bena. How d’y’do, Maude Matthew.” Her hand extended released Paul from captivity. “I’ve heard about you, quite the item. Love the dress. You must meet my sister.”

“You are my Katya’s friend, the crazy lady in her chair, yes, who gives her coffee. And you are the sister of this Mrs George.”

“Madam!”

“What’s your problem?” Maude’s head swung from Bena to Percy and back again, “Crazy lady?”

“Madam.” His blood up and running from pink to red to purple, Percy felt the invasion rolling over his borders, “Madam, these people.”

“Are all friends of mine.” Maude pointed her glass with a splash, “My friend, Bena, my friend Katya, my friend.?”

“Paul.”

“Maude Matthew, how d’y’do?” And back to Percy, “You happy now, General? Go polish something. We’ve got serious work to do.” Linking arms with Katya and Bena, “Come on everybody, bar’s this way,” she tossed her head to lead the men and plowed on into the party. “So, Bena, tell me. Who do you know?”

BEA

Beatrice Louise, make an effort, you can get through this without wetting your pants, you can if you try. It’s not that you can’t, it’s the fact that you don’t try. Before a mirror in the flare white light, Bea McAlpine, née Sutherland, gave herself a talking to. It was a lecture she had invented to get herself through doll tea-parties and found useful on occasion since. Just take it slowly and don’t get worked up, it’s when you get excited that you forget. The hat, you managed to take off the hat. I left my hat with the hat-check girl, do da, do da.

Calm down. Poor girl’s not doing so well for tips; those who have, keep. David’ll be generous, he’s a kind man. He’s like Dad. Good Lord, he is, too and I’ve never noticed till now. Well, I’ll be darned. She has to keep him. He’s even got the same blue eyes. Look at my hair! Bea shoved her hands through her hair back from her face, patted it once, clutched her purse over her heart and pushed her way from the washroom.

ELIZABETH & GEORGE
& KATHERINE & MARTIN

It could be worse, Elizabeth, she could be raddled and lank in a leotard, or puttied together in an empire waist; it happens, be grateful she’s presentable, “Elizabeth Preston, how do you do, Miss Bailey, we are finally introduced. I believe you have met my husband, George.”

“It’s Missus Bailey, if I remember correctly.”

“Yes, Mr Preston, you do.” Katherine gave George an innocent smile and touched a finger to Martin’s cheek, “And I remembered to bring my jawbone.” She swung the same smile to her hostess, “It’s a pleasure to meet you at last and it certainly would appear to be a successful evening if this crowd is any indication.”

“Yes, it would seem.” A twitch of her own cheekbone distracted Elizabeth, “Jawbone? Is that a new. uh, word for an agent? I’ve not heard it. Rather like ‘mouthpiece’ for a lawyer; not our kind of lawyer, of course. But are you a ‘jawbone’, then, Martin?” And Martin, quite at sea, breathed through his mouth and craved liquor.

George remembered, “I believe Mrs Bailey means the jawbone of an ass, dear, in case she needs to clear us from the room.”

A rippling of her nostrils caused Elizabeth to blink and wonder how frequently her husband had sneaked up to the bar. “Now why would she wish to do that, dear? We’re her patrons, surely, we’re here for her, and she for us, certainly. Why, look at how we honour her. talent, we’ve generously made this very desirable. wall, available to a public hanging of.” Either the slither of her own voice, or the tongue wiggling inside George’s cheek stalled her. “.Yes, successful! It’s really something of a crush, isn’t it? One has to do this sort of thing, expected in our position, rather a bore, but I take it in stride and Martin has been a bit of a help, not often punctual, but willing. Why don’t you men slide off and be necessary somewhere? Uum? Katherine and I – may I call you.? – good. And you may call me Elizabeth, people do. Off with you.” An imperious wave dismissed the men.

Immensely relieved, George barely mumbled something gracious before slipping into the crowd.

“But shouldn’t we.” Martin clutched at a vision of himself at the foot of the painting, a cautious hand on Elizabeth, another on Katherine, rivetting the attention of the assembled guests with a brilliant display of critical erudition and.
“Run along, Martin. Katherine is going to tell me all about her Art.” And Martin, stung by the turning of their backs, feeling abandoned, exposed and foolishly unnecessary in a crowded room, made for the bar with a cracking of heels on the slate.

Chapter 16

16

Anglican

Cowgirls

ELIZABETH & KATHERINE

With a firm stare into Katherine’s eyes, Elizabeth tilted her chin to indicate the monstrous wall of balcony, painting and elevator doors, “Isn’t this a lovely setting for your picture? You must feel fortunate to be here.”

It was the syrup in the voice that irritated Katherine. She’d not say a word about the rope holding up her painting, or about the petty stalling over payment, she had promised to be nice, but really.”I might, except for that godawful balcony. When does the cuckoo pop out?”

“We like it.” The syrup crusted. “Do you consider yourself an Expressionist then, or do we call this Realism, Miss Bailey.”

“Missus. They’re rocks, Elizabeth, hard rocks, the edge of the Shield, granite,” Katherine’s eyes stroked her hostess’s dress, “a lot of hard grey and quite a lot of glitter, quartz, feldspar, iron pyrites, you know, fool’s gold. The Great Northern Shield, you see.”

“Yes, I do know some of our geography and I suppose. Tom Thomson and those others with their trees and such. You’d consider this in the Canadian tradition then? Well, that’s safe. Thank heaven it’s not one of that muddy brown school, all log cabins and habitants in sleighs. You do have a husband then? Is he with you? And I understand from Martin that you’ve brought along others, quite the little reunion. I think I would have been happy to extend invitations had I known you expected to bring the whole family.”

With only a promise and no cheque in hand, Katherine was determined to hold her tongue, and rising instead on her toes to exercise her anger, searching the room for distraction, she spotted David’s fair head bent in attention to a group near the bar, “There, the tall blond by the bar,” evidence of no young women in his vicinity softened her voice, “That’s my husband, my David.”

PAUL & MAUDE & BENA
& KATYA & MARTIN & DAVID

“No, no, Bena, it’s true that I know Mrs Preston.” Paul ducked his head to Maude, “your sister. but it’s David here who invited me, that’s his wife’s painting up there. We’re old friends, David and I, I’ve never met the wife, always thought he was being a tease, he’s a terrible flirt.”

“So it’s your wife Lizzie has pinned to the wall for the sake of culture. Does she enjoy my sister’s sensitive beastliness?”

“You know, I’m not sure they’ve even met yet. It’s all been arranged by. There he is. Martin!”

Placing his empty glass with deliberate care and avoiding the barman’s eye, Martin selected two stems of wine, a red and a white with the air of considering another’s need, and answering to David’s call, allowed himself to be introduced as the invaluable connection between Art and Mammon. “No one likes a smart-alec, David. As a matter of fact they’re tête à tête over Meaning at this very moment.” Sarcasm constricted Martin’s throat and he had to pause in his drinking or choke, “George, Mr Preston, and I were dismissed and quite frankly I don’t care if the damned thing falls off the wall.” The red wasn’t bad, but the white was sweeter.

“George, Mr Preston, to where has he gone? I must be introduced in his bank.”

“Bena.” The worried, warning note in Katya’s voice went unnoticed by the others.

“Of course you must. He’ll be tickled.” Maude couldn’t remember having such fun and in the warmth of so much sociability had managed to slip her arms from her jacket to wear it capelike in admiration of her new friend’s style.

“He was off like a shot, probably needed a drink as much as I did. He should be. No, there he is, by the buffet. Good God, he’s talking to Mrs Sutherland. Look, David, Tillie, and that’s George Preston. She said she might find herself a man, a cuc to squeeze. Didn’t she?”

Bena’s topknot snapped in the direction of the buffet tables, “Missus Who? What is a cuc to squeeze?”

“A cucumber. She said she.”

“Marty!” David’s glare stopped him short.

With a moue to mock David, Martin apologized, “Sorry, I’m not allowed to repeat what the lady said. The lady is Mrs Sutherland, David’s grandmother-in-law, if there is such a thing.”

“Tillie? You said Tillie. Tillie Sutherland?” Something was nibbling at Maude’s memory as she sipped her scotch. “Your wife’s grandmother?”

“Yes, her mother’s here too, somewhere. Oh God!” David clenched his eyes shut, “I forgot all about her. I promised I’d be right back.” Opening his eyes, he nodded sheepishly, “You’ll have to excuse me, I left Bea with the coats.”

“Bea? Tillie?” Maude watched his back, sipped and remembered.

ELIZABETH & KATHERINE

Elizabeth was shocked, possibly mortified; this woman was married to that handsome young man she herself had almost fallen over in the Gallery, the young man who hadn’t bothered to join her in the Members’ Lounge when she had so generously offered sherry. Had she said anything? She hoped not. and whom she had seen being patted at by that young. Well, Good Lord, they’re at it again! It’s that Paul. Here. Now who invited. And those women, where. It’s that awful creature from the sidewalk, that dreadful gypsy! Good God, that’s my sister! “What’s going on here? Who let those people in?”

“I beg your pardon.” Katherine pulled back a step from the fury. “My husband came with me.”

“Oh, well yes, your husband, you’ll be lucky if he leaves with you, from what I’ve seen of him.” Too upset to notice or care for the effect of her words and noting the direction David took moving away from the group by the bar, Elizabeth added to the insult, “On his way to tour the washrooms from the look of it.”

GEORGE & TILLIE

George had thought a cracker a good idea. Feeling light-headed, he supposed adrenaline had pumped the scotch too quickly into his blood. It’s fear, George, same gut-dumping fear you felt whenever the Spit jumped into the sky, so have a cracker like you did in the cockpit, chew on the dryness and you’ll think yourself calm by the time you can swallow again. Have one of those brown rye things that looks like a porch mat. Maude can’t keep Bena and her friend occupied forever, you’re going to have to get them out of here. In a city this size, how could she have latched onto those two? The world’s too small, or God’s a nasty bastard. Well, you know that. Now there’s a handsome woman.

Swallowing a dry rasp of fibre, contemplating the remaining chunk of rusk in his hand, George spoke to the woman, “Do you suppose these things were invented as some cruel sort of protestant penance?”

Shifting her stick to a studied pose, Tillie looked the man over and stopped at his cracker, “Not catholic, are they? Terrible with wine. Thought up by somebody in a hard pew and worried about the consequences; Lutherans, I’ve always imagined. Have you sinned?”

“Unavoidably. I’m George Preston,” he swung a hand at the room, “this’s my wife’s affair.”

“Ah. Tillie Sutherland, how do you do.” With a graceful manoever of black stick and brown rusk, they shook hands. “That is my granddaughter’s painting on your wall.”

“Truly? Well, this is fortunate, I quite liked your granddaughter. You must be very proud of her. I’m afraid she’s less than pleased with us, with the hanging arrangements.”

“The rope.”

“Yes. I tried to explain to her that we’ve a rather difficult Board of Directors – it took some doing to convince them of the need for this new lobby; shuffling out of the nineteenth century looked like break-dancing to them – and they simply wouldn’t give permanent approval until they’d seen for themselves that none of our widows and orphans fled in horror. I suggested to Elizabeth, my wife, that she be more assertive, but that’s not possible.”

“Well, you know it’s really just old-fashioned, isn’t it? We used to hang pictures from a cord, as I remember, and young Martin has done a splendid job. It must have been quite the effort, ladders and whatnot, to reach that balcony. Rather a fanciful bit of decoration, that.”

“Actually, it’s meant to be used, though god knows what for. Our Brigadier Monteith insisted it be accessible – there’s an opening on the back to the elevator – in fact he insisted on the thing, period. I think he dreams of being proclaimed Governor General with a blare of coronets, King, possibly, when he’s three sheets away.”

“A private elevator?”

“No, the farthest one there. The button’s unmarked. There’s general agreement never to let Monteith see which one it is and he’s so used to having his buttons pressed for him it’s unlikely he’ll ever find it for himself. Can’t have him bungee jumping in banking hours.”

BEA

Oh, dear, where has David gotten to? He promised he’d be right back. Bea looked about her nervously, her determination softening on the edge of strangers. She almost patted her hair again, but pulled her hand down to help clutch her purse. Don’t draw attention, maybe they didn’t see the hat. Oh they did, of course they did. Where’s David? Where’s Mother? There. Oh, good heavens, with a man, eating and drinking and chatting him up. And laughing with him! She’ll make a fool of us. We have to leave. Holding her lip with her teeth, Bea headed for the buffet.

KATHERINE & ELIZABETH

In a gulp, Katherine sent wine chasing up to meet the vodka and the hatred smashing through her head. This bitch is a beast! A snob’s a snob, she can put her boots into me all she likes if she’s forking over enough cash, but she doesn’t get mouthy about my man and get away with it. “I think you’re very much mistaken, Mrs Preston. David is probably seeing to my grandmother and my mother, he’s a gentleman that way. Not something you’re familiar with, I expect. Your husband doesn’t know enough to remove his gloves.”

Stiff with fury, both women watched David take several steps, turn his head, alter direction and arrive smiling by the buffet.

“There. You see? My grandmother.”

“But that’s George.”

“Yes. Should be good for a lesson in manners. Hah, and there’s my mother.”

A knee tried to buckle, her nose tickled painfully, but Elizabeth managed a clear question, “That woman is your mother?”

“That’s the Bea.”

“Excuse me, I have.” Elizabeth tried a dim smile, a little wave of her hand, but her grey kid pumps broke into a trot and she was gone.

Another one who needs a diaper, Katherine thought, I hope she pisses herself.

BEA & DAVID
& TILLIE & GEORGE

“Bea, I’m sorry, are you all right? I’m sorry I took so long, I got waylaid by gypsies, found Paul though. Did you manage all right? Find the facilities?”

“Yes, David, never mind. Look, Mother’s right there, bothering some poor man and waving her stick about, I’ve got to take her home before she starts saying things we’ll all regret. Will you help? There’s no need to bother Katherine, she’s much too busy, we’ll just slide off and I’ll call her tomorrow.”

“Oh, no need to worry about him, that’s George Preston, the man himself. Besides, you just got here, haven’t even had a look at the painting yet. Come on, let’s go meet him before Tillie puts the moves on him.” Placing an encouraging hand on her shoulder, David noticed the absence of the hat, “Hey, good move, you look great.” And steering her into her mother’s presence, he tipped his chin over her head winking at Tillie, “Mission accomplished. Now tell her she can’t leave yet.”

“Thank you, David. Beatrice, you can’t leave yet.” And turning with a smile, “Mr Preston, I’d like you to meet my daughter, Beatrice McAlpine, and her son-in-law, David Bailey.”

“A pleasure, how d’you do. You must be very proud of Katherine, your daughter, I assume, and your wife.” George shook hands and felt a trace of pity for this tense and nervous little woman who linked the rock to the hard place. The young husband looked comfortable enough, though tired for his age. “She’s very fortunate to have your support at a time like this. I know it’s a nerve-wracking business and friends are a help, but there’s nothing like family and that’s rare nowadays.”

“Speaking of family, I believe I just met your sister-in-law, Maude. Matthew, is it?” David noticed Tillie’s fists tighten with a jerk on her stick and he rested a protective hand at her back.

“Maude, yes, I’m delighted she could come, not often out and about these days, prefers her own company since her husband’s been gone. Actually, she preferred it while he was alive, for that matter.” George squeezed a dry, apologetic grin, “Pardon the candidness, but Harry was a pain.” These people made him garrulous, it must be the family thing. “I was quite surprised when she turned up, she tends to avoid Elizabeth, my wife, as much as possible – sisters, you know, it seems inevitable, worlds apart – but it seems she invited some friends of her own. My goodness, who, by the way, I must attend to.” His time was up, and feeling calm give way to fear again, he wondered where he’d put the remains of that miserable rusk.

“Oh yes, there’s an interesting woman. Bena, I think? who seems very eager to meet you.”
“Then you will have to excuse me. A pleasure. You must introduce yourselves to my wife. Excuse me.”

Chapter 17

17

Anglican

Cowgirls

ELIZABETH

She’s heavier. It’s not her, it can’t be her. It’s her, older, thicker and dumpier than ever, but it’s her. It can’t be! Why would she be here? This Katherine’s her daughter; she said that’s her mother, Bea. She said the Bea, could be B for. for Barbara, or Bonnie, or something, a nickname sort of. Or Bee! Maybe she’s busy as a bee and they call her that. It can’t be Bea Sutherland. It is. But why? Because of the daughter! God, Elizabeth, get a grip.

She was heavy then. She was pregnant then. Then this Katherine must be that baby; unless she married again. Oh I’d have heard that from the Lettie girls. God yes, they did go on about some wedding. When? Oh hell, years ago. Who listens? It must have been the daughter and this. David. Yes, yes, it was down here at old Whatsername’s. Tillie’s – they bitched about having to drive so. Christ! The grandmother, that’s her, too, talking to George, she was always old and dressed to the teeth. Oh Lord! Why, what have I done to deserve this? And what in the name of hell is that gypsy bitch doing here? Something’s got to be done about this. Where the hell is Martin?

KATHERINE

Katherine stood with her back squared to the room and stared up at her picture. A great wash of pride welled up from her groin to tingle the point of her lip. Damn! Don’t you dare start a coldsore. Don’t smile, don’t move your lips. Don’t aggravate it, think it away. No, ignore it! Look at the paint. It’s here, isn’t it? Here. Don’t smile! That right corner’s overworked, too heavy, should’ve taken it right down to canvas and gone again. Didn’t though, it’s all right, looks deliberate. I still like the top edge, genius light. People like it, lots of smiles and nods. Don’t smile, look lost in concentration, they’ll leave you alone. Sure, alone, just like David’s doing. For Christ’s sake, don’t start crying! You’re here. So what? You’re here. It’s only a bank, it’s not the Louvre. And you’re not dead. Might as well be, David’s moved out. Don’t bite your lip! That bitch Preston’s up to something, I can smell it. I want my money and I want out of this hell hole. Where’s Martin?

PAUL & MARTIN

So, this’s the closet case – Paul thought David was probably right about Martin. He sighed from the pit of his belly – I’m so jaded, so pissed and tired, so very old and tired when the sight of the closet looks like a holiday. For me. He may be cute as a button, but who’s fool enough to wake Snow White? I can manage the kiss, it’s the mortgage and the major appliances.

Jesus! Well, you could blow his cover. Just his cover. Hah, very funny. He’s going to do it himself if he keeps sucking back the ripple with both hands. Guess I’d better help, “You realize if you keep drinking like that, Martin, you’re going to piss rosé and giggle like a co-ed. Let’s get you a real drink while you tell me about Art. Gin do?”

KATYA

There was no point trying to get a harness on Bena, and she’d have kicked the slats out of any kind of stall, she was going to run free until she met up with her Mister Preston, so Katya planted her bunions as comfortably as she could, turned a deaf ear and took stock. So, a group of us change our clothes and get together to drink cocktails and look at a picture in a bank lobby. A social plateau, certainly. Not every plateau’s above sea level. Still, the Medici were nice rich people, so who’s going to admit this’s silly? Not me. This is a roomful of believers. Katya’s open ear caught a note of Bena’s high whinny. She saw Maude give a wiggle of her fur-caped shoulders and watched her grasp the hands of a handsome white-haired man who stopped at her side.

BENA

Lust thickened her tongue and poured saliva into Bena’s mouth as she looked her George Preston up and down, a soldier in a gentleman’s suit of rich dark cloth. He is my friend, a man who sits with me to drink coffee and beer at a table and talks in stories about his war. I would have him in my bed, if he would come to me, but he does not. He believes, like some priests, I think, that he has no need, but still he had to have this Elizabeth for a wife. Perhaps she is just dressing for the window. Maybe that is it. I think she is not so much wanted, but she is useful. He says she talks. What can she know? What can any of these people, even my Katya who was safe in her snow, what can they know who have never lain in a battlefield? I have had shame and pleasure in my womb and understand his loathing for the murder and the rape, the blowing up and the juice of triumph in his veins and why he will not father more of it. I am useful.

MARTIN

It’s out of control. It’s all out of control. It’s not my fault. It’s out of my hands, I’m dismissed from the Presence, turned off with a flip of the wrist. Should’ve flipped her the finger. The woman’s got serious chicken-foot problems with those hands; she must get the web clipped when she gets her butt tucked. Bitch. And my Katherine let it happen, stood there and didn’t bat an eyelash. My friend. My fucking creation, for fuck’s sake, she sure as hell wouldn’t be here without me. I pulled this off and she just lets that bitch Preston. Quickly, to mask his tearing eyes, Martin drank off the gin and tonic in his fist, it cooled his throat and excused the flush. He was busy staring at Bena when he passed his empty glass back to Paul and refused to notice the fingers that tingled the back of his hand.

There’s obviously no control here whatsoever. This woman’s bizarre, somebody left the lid off the Bad Fairy Box. She looks like Joanna the Mad Infanta’s Barbie doll, tramped into the carpet and dressed up for a tea party. And this sister of Elizabeth’s, my God! I’m surprised they let her out of the barn in that dead lamb. You’d think La Preston would have taken her shopping for a decent frock before showing her to this crowd. Look at the shoes, the other one, too, feet like hamhocks. God, tacky! I’m not going to survive this. I hate this. Why am I here? I’ve gotta do something. These people are out of control, anything could happen. I’m getting pissed, David’s dumped Katherine, Bea’s a silly tit, old Tillie’s got a knife and wants me to smell her perfume, somebody’s going to start flogging Tupperware in a minute and I think this Paul guy’s coming on to me. God, it’s hot in here. This time Martin watched Paul’s fingers as he accepted a refilled glass and glanced at his eyes before he asked Maude if she knew that the saleswomen up at Holt’s called her sister the Dragon Lady.

MAUDE

It’s too late now. Maude refused guilt for double-crossing George. He’s a survivor. So’s Lizzie, hard as this stone floor. Makes it fun to drop things on her, they bounce or they break and not much bounces. For George’s sake I should’ve bounced Bena and Katya out of here before they fall on Lizzie, but what the hell, it looks like the only fun in town. And now we’ve got Bea. what is it? McAlpine, yes. And good old Tillie ‘The Torch’ Sutherland waving the family flag – a cat on old silk – and the daughter, and it’s all an accident. Oh sure. An accident waiting to happen, maybe. Well, the Lord works in mysterious ways. Yah, sometimes. There’s no mystery here, just a lot of chickens home to roost.

Except they can’t know who Lizzie is, or this Katherine wouldn’t be here with her picture on the wall. And Bea wouldn’t be. Maybe she never told her; Bea was always too good for her own good. I don’t think Lizzie ever got her hands on Bea’s man, but I’m certain it was her trying that ran him off. There’s no way they’d be here if they know who Lizzie is. Is there? Not much I’d put past that old goat, Tillie. Maybe I’d better go have a little visit.

Maude turned in time to clasp her brother-in-law’s hands. “George, you must meet my friend, Katya Saarila. Katya, George Preston. Bena, you know.” She tossed her head about innocently, “There are others. Somewhere. Now, you really must excuse me, I’ve more trouble to cause.” She beamed George a wink, pulled her hands from his clutch and made off into the crowd.

GEORGE & BENA & KATYA

Oh, do I have a headache. Resisting the need to clutch at his brow, George blinked very slowly, keeping a smile on his lips. He refused to sink. Pull out, George, pull out, get her nose up. Easy with the stick. And he drew his clenched hands to his belly and levelled off.

It’s a stroke. No it’s not. Well, something exploded and it sure as hell wasn’t an orgasm. And I thought Maude loved me. Traitor, evil witch, she’s getting a kick out of this, nothing she loves better than getting up Elizabeth’s nose. Sisters! I’ve got to do something here. It’s not my ass, I can talk my way through this one like I talk my way through everything else, it’s my job, Mister Smooth. And nothing can damage Bena, she’s had her share. Her friend seems to be able to get from barnboots to court shoes without too much fuss. So it’s Elizabeth’s ass that needs the cushion for this one. Yep. So. You’re the boss. Yes.

“Come to my office, ladies, come and see some of the rest of this beautiful old building. This renovating business didn’t get further than the foyer, the rest is still intact, wonderful old walnut in the offices and we’ve got colour up there, the boardroom carpet is something to see.” Bena was already in motion, it was the friend he had to sell, “Linenfold panelling? A Klimpt? I can pour you an excellent scotch. Quite a surprising view, though it’s only three floors up. There’s an elevator. Back there, behind. We can get out of this crowd and hear ourselves think.”

“You think that’s safe, do you?” Katya allowed George half a smile.

He took it for a gift, “Thinking, hearing and getting the hell out of here? Yes. Safer at least. Bena, this way, if you will.”

MAUDE & TILLIE
& BEA & DAVID

“Mrs Sutherland, d’you remember me?” Left arm crossed to pin her slipping jacket, right arm crossed to steady her scotch, Maude’s eagerness teetered to a stop.

“Maude Everett. You married Harry Matthew. He was a good looking man.” Tillie didn’t smile yet.

It did feel good to be remembered. Maude grinned, “Well, now, he was, wasn’t he?”

“And you got out of Strawbridge and saw something of the world. Better than a Sunday drive, the most some people get. And now you’re here and your sister is the cause of all this.”

“You knew!”

“Don’t be silly. I wouldn’t have dragged Bea along if I’d known. David there, he said he’d met you. Even a really old woman can make sense out of that.” Tillie gave up a small smile. “Your brother-in-law, George Preston, says you don’t get out much, so I don’t expect you knew either. You’d better say hello to Bea.” She turned to her daughter who chattered nervously at David and asked if she remembered Maude Matthew.

Bea knew that disaster had come at last; here it was, the tumour, the car wreck, the blindness, the pregnant daughter, the poorhouse – disgrace. In a hollow of shock, she transposed Maude Matthew to Elizabeth Preston and added Bess. Bessie Everett. For reasons she couldn’t allow, she wanted to yell ‘Fire!’

“Yes, of course. It’s been a lot of years, Maude. You look well.”

“And you, Beatrice. You’ve reason to be proud.”

“Proud of.”

“Your daughter, for the love o’ mike! This may be Lizzie’s shindy, but it’s for your daughter’s picture as much as for George’s pretty bank. She’s a success, Bea. Be proud of her.”

“Tell her again, she doesn’t listen to me. Never has.”

“And then there’s your mother, bastion of all that’s proper. You look marvelous, Mrs Sutherland.”

“Don’t encourage her. You have met my Katherine’s husband, David, haven’t you?”

“Yes, I quite like him. You know, she really is a bitch, Bea, Lizzie is. She’s well-meaning, but she has an odd affection for the truth. She doesn’t tell it, but it affects her. She thinks she’s right, that’s her real failure. You should forgive her for that and then you can really hate her for all her other smarmy little ways. That’s what I do. Otherwise I’d have put her out for adoption.”

“Sound advice, Maude. Bea never had a sister, so she’s not aware of these necessities. Now I had two older sisters who.”

“Mother! This is not tea in the church basement with the Lettie girls’ pickle recipes for conversation. This.”

“I have never eaten a Lettie pickle.”

“Oh, you have.”

“Never.”

“Mother!”

“Excuse me, I’ll send you both out to sit in the car. Is this the Bessie Everett business that Katherine was going on about this afternoon? Which one are we talking about? Which one’s the homewrecker?” David concentrated on Maude, “Your sister. Preston’s wife. Elizabeth? The hanging committee. Yes? Madame Patron. sounds like. Bessie Everett. Am I right? Do I win anything?”

“You should try to win the girl.”

“Tillie.” David’s face fell, “I’ve been at this fair a long time and I still can’t guess her weight.”

“Maybe you should sweep her off her feet and measure the poundage once in a while.” Maude felt helpful.

“Just whose side are you on here?”

PAUL & MARTIN

Standing by the bar, Paul watched George Preston steer Bena and Katya through the edge of the crowd to disappear behind the curtain wall of marble. He was disappointed, the old coot was going to salvage the situation and hide them from Elizabeth, avoiding what surely would be a classic dust-up. It was definitely ‘need-to-know’ status for the Old Liz, but Paul thought he’d better have the sense to keep his head down. He told Martin.

Disillusioned as he was, considering a future without the support of Mattress Publicity – the salary, he slept on a futon – a future without the scaffolding of family, without the net of connections, old schoolmates, old girlfriends, cousins, godparents, doctor, lawyer, portfolio advice – What future? He’d have to sell his body. He’d have no choice. He’d live in shame. Not on the streets, though, he wasn’t just off the Ottawa bus, no, he’d have to get a little flat, somewhere in the redlight district, wherever that was. Down there around the bus station, along Dundas, over the Chinese, that’s nice.

So, disillusioned as he was, Martin absorbed the tale of Dragon Lady Meets the Gypsy and Rubberboots, which sounded like an uneven tag-team match until he understood that Paul was talking about Elizabeth Preston and the two dreadful dressers who were just. Somewhere here, a minute ago.

“They’ve gone off to hide. Preston dragged them back there. I can’t figure out how he knows about the fight this afternoon unless she told him, and I don’t believe that. And how would he know them to see them? Unless he knew them already. That Maude, his sister-in-law, she invited them, she said. This is deeper than it looks, Martin, there’s a real hole in this puddle and the frogs are heading for shore. I think Dragon Person needs to be told something’s afoot.”

“A claw! Have you seen that woman’s hands?”

“Somebody has to tell her the castle’s been invaded, that the king just smuggled the bad guys thataway.”

“Elevator’s back there. Gone up to his office, I bet. Scotch, couches. God, the man’s a sleazeball. They all are. Whole world is. Sex, nothing but sex. Oops!” Martin dipped, straightened, dipped again as though it were an exercise and smiled blearily at Paul, “Gotta put a stop to it. All this free sex. There’s no romance anymore. No money for candles. I’d better tell Elizabeth, it’s my job, in the middle, I get it from both ends.”

“D’you like it from both ends?”

“Not without romance.” Martin almost collapsed from the weight of blood in his head. He didn’t believe he’d said that. “I must go. Oops. Would you hold that?” He fumbled his gin glass into Paul’s fingers, managed a weak grimace, pulled up his shoulders and stumbled off to find Elizabeth.
Paul took a deep, satisfying breath, exchanged his empties for a pair of wines, rewarded himself with a wink at the barman and glided off to introduce himself to David’s Katherine. She shouldn’t be hard to spot, someone artistic with fear in her eyes.

Chapter 18

18

Anglican

Cowgirls

ELIZABETH & MARTIN

“Martin!” Elizabeth raised two imperious fingers, “Reconsideration time, I’m afraid. Terrible mistake, I’m hearing disapproval, complaints, Board members not happy, that sort of thing. We must.”

“What?” Martin rocked on his heels desperate for a focus. He tried her nostrils, but they kept moving like a pair of dancing black olives.

“We must consider the opinion, in fact the fact, that this sort of abstraction is just not the kind of statement that the Imperial Trust cares to make. After all, we are a. preserving institution, our task is good taste and the better sort of values and people are saying their grandchildren could do as well, which we both know of course is silly, but they’re saying it and in this case, perhaps. I mean, it’s not as if there’s very much paint on it, and it’s not as if it really means anything. Rocks, well, we all know what rocks look like. Don’t we? I mean, what’s the point?”

Watching her lips was making him dizzy, which he understood, writhing red snakes could do that, but the growing ball of fury in his stomach was a mystery.

“I’m sorry, since she does seem to be a friend of yours and you’ve gone to some trouble over this, but apparently it’s just not appropriate. People want a nice landscape, trees, a lake, what they’re used to. It’s a shame, but we did agree that the Board had the final decision. Didn’t we? Yes. So, tomorrow, if you would arrange it, to take it down, early would be best, before opening, we’d all be pleased and.”

“You chicken.” Focused on the hands that plucked the neckline of her grey challis, Martin had steadied enough to hear and understand the ball of fury, “.footed, chicken-hearted, chicken-headed, double-crossing, stupid, old. Dragon! Who do you think you are?”

“Don’t you speak to me like that, Martin Knight! Your mother and I.”

“My mother’s a doorknob, she pours sherry on her cornflakes and trains Corgis to eat people. Don’t give me that schoolgirls-together crap, you’re just as out of control as she is. In charge and out of control. Well, I’ve had it up to here.” His head bobbed under his upraised hand, “Had it with you women telling me what.” His mind went blank and his brows grew fierce in concentration, “.telling me anything!”

“I think you’ve had too much to drink, Martin.” Only her lips moved. “We’ll leave it at that. Okay?”

Martin chose the future, “You know George, your husband? Fellow with the nice white hair? He just sneaked up to his office with a couple of gypsies.” Martin rounded his eyes and nodded his head, “Girl gypsies. I think you have a problem. We’ll just leave it at that. Okay?” He flipped his hair and he strode away with a whistling in his ears.

PAUL & KATHERINE & MARTIN
& DAVID & TILLIE & BEA

“You’re Katherine Bailey, aren’t you? Painter of the evening, wife of David who is a God. I like your picture.”

“And you are.?”

“Paul Magarry. Saint Paul, in some circles dedicated to the works of man. Woman, too, of course. Just a figure of speech. Man. It’ll be turned into myn, one of these days just to please somebody. I was once a colleague of David’s. Well, a slave under his whip. I should be so lucky. At the group home. Now I only see him when he comes to look at the one or two good paintings that the A.G.O. admits it owns and which I guard with my life. I’m a ‘don’t touch the art person’ at your local public gallery. Come on down and feel good about what the really sensitive people have done for you. I actually do like your picture.”

“I once knew an anthropologist who believed that ‘it’s a fact’ and ‘actually’ were followed by a lie.”

“Why d’you suppose people lied to him so much?”

“He was an anthropologist. It’s not a bad bit of painting, is it? It was fun. Keeping it clean was a job. You don’t think it’s just pretty?”

“Nope.”

“Not that there’s anything so wrong with pretty, it’s had a bad rap from all this ‘back to the urban blight’ movement. Fucking hippies! I’m glad you like it.”

“Why?”

“Why? Because there are some people, like my mother, who have yet to come anywhere near it and.”

“No. Why rocks? It is a rockface?”

“Yah. It’s the stone of my mother’s heart. Yes, it’s a rockcut. The first one, actually. There, it’s a fact, the first rockcut north on the 400, at Strawbridge. I grew up there, beside the road, between it and the river and when they built the 400, so Toronto could get to the cottage before dark, that was the first place they had to blast, the edge of the Shield.”

“You weren’t white trash, of course, living beside the road. All the white people lived along the road, right?”

“You’ve been there.”

“I’m from Bannock.”

“Well, there’s your answer. Fightin’ and shootin’ and drinkin’ country. Somethin’s movin’ in the bush, lad.”

“Best wear something orange, they don’t like oranges.”

“Who don’t?”

“Bears. Indians. I don’t know, look at their teeth.”

“You’re pushing it.”

“Somebody has to.”

“You’re right. So, you’re Paul. I’m glad to meet you.”

“So, why rockcuts?”

“Oh, ’cause they’re easy. I’ve stared at them all my life, I should know what they look like. I’d have to be a walking hat-rack not to get it right. And anybody who finds an absence of anything can just leave. I’m sick of this ‘find yourself’ in my painting bullshit. I don’t know you, I didn’t paint it for you. I don’t mean you, you know what I mean. People bitch because they can’t find their experience in my picture. I say, screw them, if they’re going to complain because they didn’t bring anything with them. They can go home. Blah, blah, blah, that’s what I say.”

“And very well, too. But why rockcuts?”

“Jesus, you’re a nag. Because when they blasted that first rockcut it was their first time and a great big boulder, huge, a chunk of the Shield went straight up in the air and came right down in the middle of our house, right through from attic to basement.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope. And they always said around Strawbridge that the guy who lit the fuse was on the bus before it hit the ground. It’s a fact. That’s why rockcuts, I guess, if you need that kind of reassurance.”

“I see. So, they’ve been throwing stones at you since you were a girl. Were they trying to hit you, d’you suppose, or were they just trying to stop you?”

“Whether they hit you or not, it hurts. They’re throwing them, aren’t they?”

“Maybe they’re just trying to attract your attention.”

“You know something.? Let’s get a drink.” Offering a companionable hand and turning, Katherine collided with Martin on a roll.

“I told you.” Martin wagged his finger at Katherine, “I told you. Didn’t I tell you? The woman’s a monster. I told her that. A dragon. Old Claw-foot Liz. I said, ‘My mistake? Excuse me! You have a problem.’ She says it’s the wrong ‘statement’, I said she had the wrong idea about just who the hell she thinks she is anyway and.”

“Martin, what the hell’re you talking about? Liz Preston? What’d you do? What’d she say?” Katherine took a handful of lapel, “Martin! What did she say?”

“She said they think your picture stinks. She wants it down.”

“She fucking what!?” With her fist in the fabric she pulled Martin to her.

“I got her, though. I got her. I told her old George the sex maniac just hustled those gypsy broads up to his office couch like Paul said and.” He rolled his head for a wink at Paul, “.and she took off like.”

“What did she say, Martin?” Katherine rocked him back to make sure he could see her eyes.

“She didn’t say a word, just sort of waved her nostrils and headed for.” Martin lost breath as he was yanked in again.

“I mean, you babbling asshole, what did she say about my picture? Do you hear me?”

“She said I have to take it down early in the morning,” he winced and whimpered, “and I am going to be in so much pain in the morning.”

“Why, Martin? Not why you’ll be in pain, I know why you’ll be in pain.” Holding her patience with a deep breath, Katherine released her grip on his lapel and smoothed it with a couple of light punches, “Why, Martin, does she want the picture to come down?”

“I don’t know!” He listed toward Paul who adapted a straight-arm prop into a matey-looking clutch. “She says the Board says it’s too abstract for the bank, or something. They want the lonesome pine they know, the Grope of Seven stuff that won’t scare the horses. It’s not the bank’s kind of statement, she says. What the hell, if that’s what she wants, she can have mine; I’ll show her a bank statement that’s seriously overdrawn. And that’s another thing, there’s not enough paint on your picture.”

Katherine said nothing and felt only cold, but her body screamed such outrage that Paul blinked from the punch and steadied Martin in his grip. Scanning, he spotted David with Tillie and Bea and summoned them with urgent jabs of his chin.

“He’s yours.” Paul let David get a good grip, dropped his hand from Martin’s shoulder and turned to Tillie who had managed herself into a three-point buttress next Katherine, “She’s just been hit with a rock. Liz Preston pitching. She says they don’t want the painting after all. I’m going to have a little chat with her, the woman’s got problems. Tell Katherine I’m going to blow her up real good.” Turning, he blew a kiss at David and was gone.

KATHERINE & TILLIE & BEA

“She hates me.”

“She doesn’t hate you, Katherine, she just knows who you are, I expect. She did something out of pure meanness a long time ago and tonight she’s going to do it again. It happens with old sins, they repeat on you and they’re a lot less pleasant coming up than going down. A bit like cucumbers. She’s Bessie Everett, Katherine. It seems to be a very small world. I think I know everybody now.”

Limp in David’s grip, Martin swallowed hard on the rolling wash in his stomach and managed, “What the hell is going on, please?”

Beatrice massaged her temples with one hand while the other kept a white-knuckled hold on her purse. She looked at her mother’s gentle hand at Katherine’s elbow, at David’s sure hand on Martin’s shoulder and she couldn’t keep her tears any longer. “She told a lie, Bessie did, Elizabeth Preston, she was Everett then, she told a lie because she wanted what I had, or she thought she did. Her lie destroyed what I had and there was never anything else that I wanted.” Bea bit at her tears, fumbled into her purse for a tissue, blotted her cheeks, “That’s my own fault, not hers. I might have wanted something else; she couldn’t know.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Bea! You carry this sainthood business too far. You’ve turned the other cheek so often you’ve been slapped silly. Get over it.”

“Gran.” Katherine’s voice was firm and disapproving, her mother’s tears looked so much like her own in this morning’s mirror and she saw some of her mother’s loneliness, the black of many colours. She reached and drew Bea to her, “Maybe men just leave, Ma, because they’re too stupid to stay.”
Martin collapsed so suddenly that David almost lost him, but an underarm save preserved appearances long enough for David to remove him from the women, steer a path to the buffet and prop him next to the biscuits.

Chapter 19

19

Anglican

Cowgirls

BENA & KATYA & GEORGE.
& ELIZABETH & MAUDE

“It’s not a very big Klimpt, but then size isn’t our qualification.” George handed Katya scotch and water in thick crystal and turning offered Bena a stemmed glassful of red-purple liquor.

“Excellence is a better virtue, certainly.” Katya turned an appreciative smile to the room and looked questioningly at Bena’s glass.

“Believe it or not, that has been in my cupboard since the day I met Bena. I do that sort of thing. Slivovitz. Plum gumbo. Just on the off chance that this should ever happen. It’s the only kind of magic I know how to do.”

“You see my gentleman, Katya. You laughed about blankets and seashells, my Katya. You made jokes and were cruel. Jealous, I think perhaps you were. You were not nice.”

“Not nice? Jealous?” Leaden and thick of a sudden, Katya’s feet shuffled on the carpet and she turned herself to see the long canyon through the window, the orange-white light of electric sun down blocks of stone and glass and steel and thought perhaps it was true, she maybe had been a bit jealous. “Well, it may have bothered me that you really liked somebody I didn’t know. But I’m always nice.”

“What’s going on in here?” The door was still swinging when Elizabeth’s heels hit the middle of the office floor. “I want an explanation! I want to know now! What is it, George? What’s going on? Who are these women? I know who they are. They’re tramps. Why are they.” Her eyebrows froze, “Tramps? Oh, God, George, they’re not that kind of tramp?” She reasoned with herself, “Impossible. She looks like something off the top of a music box. An old, cheap music box. And this one just looks dumpy now, but I’ve seen her look worse. These animals assaulted me in front of the Gallery, George, this afternoon. Threw garbage everywhere. They were after my bag. I put a stop to it. I can’t take this, George, this foolishness, people being crazy and not doing things right. It’s not fair that I should have to be the one everybody thinks they can just dump their messes on!”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Elizabeth, these women are my friends. At least Bena is. And Katya could be, I think.”

“She will be, George, I quite like her.” Maude stood in the open doorway, one fist on the collar of her trailing lamb, the other absently clutching a black-handled cheeseknife which, when she thought about it, had been pressed upon her by someone – Tillie Sutherland, for god knows what reason. “George has friends, Lizzie. People you don’t know about because you’d never approve. There’s a lot of George you’d never approve of. Me, you don’t approve at all. Well, Lizzie my darlin’, we don’t give a damn. Do we, George?” Twirling her jacket into a heap on a homburg, she made for the cabinet, “Which one’s the good scotch, George?”

. & PAUL

“So, this’s where you all are. Katya. Bena.” Paul nodded greetings from the doorway. “Nice room, Mister Preston. Maude, if you’re pouring? Please. And Missus Preston, Elizabeth, dear heart, what a marvelous evening. The Klimpt is good.” He stepped for a closer look, “Very good. Yours? Or did it fall off the Gallery wall? Of course it’s yours, just teasing.” He pointed a baleful look at Elizabeth, “It’s a good thing to buy pictures and treat them with respect. The painters, too, especially when they’re still mouthbreathing in your foyer.”

“What bloody business is it of yours, you. Doorman!”

“Elizabeth!”

“Shut up, George! You’re depraved, you and your old tarts. And you.” She stabbed a finger at Paul, “You’ve no right to be here.”

“I was invited.”

“Not by me you weren’t! And neither were these street trash.”

“Oh, they’re my guests, Lizzie, dear.” Maude handed Paul a tumbler, “The ladies are. This gentleman’s a friend of the family.”

“What family?”

“Don’t be arch, girl.” Maude’s voice was flat as she planted herself in front of her sister, “Katherine.” She looked to Paul for confirmation, “Bailey. Her family, Elizabeth.”

“Yes!” A long swallow of scotch exploded inside Paul’s head. “Katherine, who you’ve decided to humiliate, deciding now, tonight, at the top of the party, that you don’t want her picture after all. It’s outta here. She’s outta here. Just like that.” He snapped his fingers beside her ear. “You decide to trash Katherine, trash her painting for god only knows what reason, just like you go around pissing on everybody and everything that doesn’t tug its forelock at you. You have outrageous pretensions, woman. Old George here has a bank, so you’re divinely anointed to judge for the rest of us. Like hell! You can’t even hang a picture!”

“He is harsh, Missus George, but I think that he is right. You believe a great lady, a princess, can be this way? Shouting names at people you do not know, saying who is on the sidewalk and who is not. No, I will tell you this is not good manners.”

“Bena, I expect she means well.” Katya was watching the bodice of the grey challis rise and fall in short explosions.

“No, she doesn’t, she doesn’t mean well at all.” Maude tapped a foot, “So, you’re not keeping the painting. Is that it?” The foot tapped faster and stopped, “Is that it, Little Bess? You stabbed poor silly Bea in the back because you were bored and now you’re going to do the daughter in because of. What, Lizzie? Guilt? Envy? Stupidity? What? Just habit? Well, here, here’s the knife to do it with. Take it. Old Tillie Sutherland handed it to me. Really. You know she was a friend of our mother’s. I guess she saw you coming again.”

Elizabeth Preston spun her pumps and was out the door in a gasp, the cheeseknife in her fist.

KATHERINE & BEA & TILLIE

“You know, I really don’t give a damn if she doesn’t want it.” One arm around Tillie’s waist, one on Bea’s shoulder, Katherine pointed her chin up the wall at her picture, “I can probably get a couch in those colours myself.”

“Katherine, I wish you wouldn’t speak like that. It’s actually nicer than the couch you’ve got.”

Tillie leaned to peer at her daughter, “You did wear that old sweater, pilled at the elbows,” and straightened to nod at the painting, “Could you put a peacock in there, Katherine?”

PAUL & GEORGE

In the corridor, running, George at his heels, Bena fast on the outside, Paul heard the soft whoosh around the turning, “Elevator. She’s going down!”

Running, laughing with fear, George heard a second soft whoosh and felt the ship go into a dive. “The button, she’s hit the Brigadier’s button!”

MAUDE

Maude said afterward that she saw her do it. She said you have to stand by your flesh and blood no matter the cost. Bena said she thought Missus George could have worn something a little nicer if she’d known she was going to wave from the balcony.

TILLIE
The rocks slid. Katherine’s granite avalanched down the marble, slammed to the slate and stood and slowly tipped its great coloured tent of canvas. Tillie raised her stick and its silver ferrule pierced the drum-taut cloth that fell to her fist, which after she found much bruised, and the fabric burst, tore with a squeal and slipping down past Tillie’s ears, ripped again on Katherine’s shoulders, dragged at Bea’s skirt and subsided with a burp about their feet. “Enough is enough,” Tillie said.

boys anglican

h slaps, Bea’s thoughts charged her mother – Nasty! Cruel! Viperous old… Bitch! Her eyes watered with anger and the effort to not say the hard words. Her hate frightened her, she couldn’t live like this, it had to stop, “You have to stop! You’re crazy, old woman! You’re crazy!” Her heart raced with panic and closed her throat. Her mother must go into a home. And Katherine, her daughter, well… She would go her own way, and what would it matter? The air went out of Bea, her head fell with her shoulders in shame and she remembered nothing of life but disappointment.
Tillie was shocked. If Bea was at the hollering stage, they were in trouble, real trouble. If Bea was losing her grip – Tillie shuddered with a bone-cold chill – no, she must not look at the twisting black skein in the centre of her vision – Look away! she commanded herself. With a quick shake of her head Brass holds well in the hand
And less coveted,
It makes a good lend.
Its weight accounted
And quality noted,
Brass returns with a smile.

ANGLICAN COWBOYS
SATURDAY
The morning after the hanging party Paul Magarry quit his guard job. He quit before Elizabeth Preston, far too prominent a Member of the Board of the Art Gallery of Ontario, could take aim at him cowering behind a plaster Moore. He didn’t doubt she’d plow Pissarro’s orchard to be rid of him. The hanging hadn’t been a gallery do, but rather Elizabeth’s own drinks for three hundred reception to honour her choice of Katherine Bailey’s painting for the newly refurbished grand foyer of the Imperial Trust. The bank paid, Elizabeth’s George was Chair.
Paul held onto the toilet bowl and understood that he ought not to have had cocktails before the reception, that he ought not to have put his face into another pail once he had arrived. He wasn’t above admitting irresponsibility, he could look a twelve-step program in the eye and believe that loved ones could get hurt, that having cocktails wasn’t always fun, that it might grieve God on a grey day, but he didn’t seriously think it was his fault that a gathering of frocks and pin-stripes had turned into a free-for-all.
I didn’t invite anybody. It was Katherine’s picture, it was Elizabeth’s party. Sorry, not my table. It was her own sister invited the gypsies. I may have said a few things, but it was Katherine’s mother who started bawling, and her grandmother who thought of the cheeseknife. Big deal, I spoke out of turn, but it was old George who went missing with the gypsies, and it was Katherine’s silly tit of an agent who got pissed and fell on the floor and it was her painting that fell on the floor and it was her husband who invited me, but I didn’t actually do anything!
Paul knew remorse for what it could be, a day of tremors and fasting, instead he released the toilet bowl, phoned the duty office and quit. He brushed his teeth and took his roommate out to breakfast.
“Why not quit, Ter? I hate it. Don’t touch the ART! And now the Bitch Queen of Culture is going to do pesto with my nuts. It’s time to go, Ter, opportunity puts boots to the door, just one of those confluence things, a trip to the moon on the wings of a snow white dove, gone while the good are going. Besides, come the revolution, it’s gonna be ‘Up against the wall, Art Guard!’, so why not quit with dignity?”
“You’re still drunk. Aren’t you going to eat?”
“Not after driving the porcelain bus for an hour, I’m not. I’m healed! I am too cleansed to eat, just coffee, lots of coffee. You eat, though, whatever you want, eggs benedict, eggs florentine, eggs tempera, eggs-pressionism, you eat.” Paul waved two fingers at a Toni-permed waitress carrying a loaded Silex and a fistful of creamers.
“Enough, Ter, I’ve had enough of this fucking blister-pack culture. No wonder I can’t paint anymore. Why should I bust a brush just so some asshole critic can flog his remedial reading skills and tell the world he’s seen it all before? When are people going to stop believing manic-depressives? This town wants a cutural Disneyland and they’re gonna get what they want, and us prop pixies had better just be grateful we’re let to decorate the floats. Yessuh! Come on up to Ethnic World! Safe, clean fun for the entire family. Liquor available to well-behaved singles, double occupancy. It’s truly the big-time big-top. At last, a city for world-class assholes!”
“You need a change, Paul. And I need a great big bloody mary.”
“Whatever you want, Terence, whatever you want. I’m paying for advice here. You want champagne cocktails? Let’s have champagne cocktails. I’m free, I can go home again!”
“This is not professional, this is not therapy__ You have no job, you can’t afford champagne cocktails. D’you mean home to Mother? You’re sick, Paul. That’s professional. Don’t you know your Tom Wolfe? Let alone your Freud.”
“Christ! It does mean Mother, doesn’t it? How about just the coffee and an order of toast?”
“That’s good, you’re joining hands with reality.” Terry ripped the foil from a creamer, “Your hair’s kind of tight today, Edna. We’ll have large bloody marys, please.” He rolled his eyes from the waitress back to Paul, “On me. This means I’m left alone, stuck with the apartment, an empty room.”
“It’s yours, you can afford it. Turn it into a den.”
“Do I look like a bear?”
“Well, you could stand to lose a couple… Ouch! Ah, come on, Ter, it won’t take five minutes to find somebody who’ll jump for it, this town’s so tight. What about that pup you’ve been dragging around the bars?”
“Never! I am not attracted to morning mouth and someone else’s soiled shorts, thank you very much. You keep your shorts in your room, that’s different. But a lover? I want dates. I want purity. I want clean underwear and party manners. I used to be anal retentive, now I’m scared shitless. Sex is so unlikely anymore, I might as well give it up and go straight.”
“Straight people have sex, Ter.”
“I never did.” Thick tumblers of red juice and shrubbery were thumped onto the table. Terry glanced from the waitress to the bar counter and back to his watch, “They keep it in a pail. Could we have poachies with wheat toast under and homefries without any onion in? Thanks, Edna. Hot, if possible.”
“You’re a vanishing breed, Ter, the heritage queer, going the way of the red neckerchief and matching stemware.”
“We’re all on the endangered list, Polliwog, not just the ruby-shoed gerbil, all of us. Fucking pandas don’t have to wear rubber to get laid. First they took disco and then they took sex, we’ve been assimilated and we didn’t even get to go to those dreadful schools.”
“Who’s we, Kemosabe? Who’re they, for that matter?”
“Oh, don’t be a smart-alec!”
“You’re my mother in drag, aren’t you?”
“What did I just say? Nobody likes a smart-alec, Paul.”
“You are a deep one, Ter. You are deeply disturbed.”
“You’re the one who’s disturbed. You and your unappreciated creativity complex. Please don’t lick your celery.”
“If you’d slip into a scuzzy pink housecoat and pucker your lips, like this, I wouldn’t have to take the bus.”
“Don’t be silly. You really are going. Oh, dear. They’ll probably have to shoot you, protect the species. Well, put all your knicknacks down in the locker, there’re some clean boxes to pack… Oh, never mind, you’d just throw things in anyhow. I’ll do it, and then they’ll be decent when you come back, or whatever. Maybe you’ll find yourself a nice forest ranger to settle down with and then you can send for your things and do a really smart ‘Song of the Loon’ sort of cabin treatment. Do you really have to take a bus?”
“No other way without a car.”
“I suppose it’s a bit far for a taxi. Poor Paul, public transit after thirty. You’re not a success, are you?”
Elizabeth Preston decided the sheet was definitely grey. It hung in a fold down over George’s shoulder and against the fine silver white of his hair__ he still had a lovely head of hair, though he could have gone quite bald by now, which was acceptable in a banker, but George had instead achieved a thistledown perhaps more suited to a man of the cloth, purple cloth, she thought would be nice__ against the white of his hair, the sheet was dull and lifeless. She would have to speak to Missus Quaid, obviously something was being neglected, either bleach in the washing, or the discreet sun-drying on the line hidden in the shrubbery which Elizabeth insisted on despite the housekeeper’s objection to lugging wet sheets ‘half the way to Moscow’ as she told Mister Quaid. Or could it be these weren’t her own sheets, but some inferior count of unnatural threads, switched by gypsies? Elizabeth tried not to squirm, the sheet didn’t look old, it just wasn’t white. “D’ you think maybe Missus Quaid’s got past it, George?”
George grunted his exasperation, considered the alternatives of ignoring his wife or screwing her brains out the top of her head, knew he couldn’t ignore her, she’d just repeat herself on a higher note, and felt a distinct wilting that left him no option at all. What was he doing with an erection at his age anyway? He’d probably just needed to take a leak. His wife was plucking at the bed sheet falling from his shoulder. He grunted again and waited for the blood to rise above his belly.
Probably, he should be worrying about her instead of trying to screw her. After all, her destruction of Katherine Bailey’s painting in the presence of a few hundred patrons of art and of finance was likely going to put an end to her career as Lady Bountiful. The embarrassment was nothing that the Imperial Trust’s public relations people couldn’t handle, though they’d have to arrange for some expensive flummery from a couple of senior critics__ reading of the event, the public could be given to understand that an important performance piece discussing the integrity of the real and the surreal imagery of stone had climaxed in a dramatic involvement of audience and art__ something like that. But embarassment was the least of the problem, she had reached beyond her usual role of arrogant busybody, reached over a balconey rail to bomb the crowd, and there was no telling what she might do next. She was becoming dangerous, an actual physical threat to life and limb.
“It’s this sheet, George. I’m thinking she’s not up to pulling her weight around here anymore.”
The point about Elizabeth was that he’d married her for her instincts and, despite her sometimes ravenous nature and her always startling capability for casual offence, she’d never before been a worry to him, managing her own insecurities, when she had any, with the sureness of a shark. He neither could, nor wanted to, control her. Indeed, what possible use could he be, he who every day felt his own grip weaken in the clasp of indifferent hands that soon enough wouldn’t even bother to wave. The world seemed no longer designed for his opinion, it didn’t care what he thought of the year’s new Beaujolais, about the state of anarchy among suit jacket lapels, no one tried to seduce him to Jamaica. Of course, his approval might be sought for a merging of vintners, a shearing of wool futures, and anyway the bank had a pink house in Bermuda whenever he needed it, but it wasn’t the same. And it didn’t matter that he thought wine a weak drink in the first place, or that he invariably wore notched lapels, or that he thought the act of visiting Jamaica in this day and age must be a bit like slumming into the Harlem clubs once was. Nobody cared what he thought about the frivolous things and that made him feel unwanted.
Supporting his own weight on his elbows wasn’t the problem, it was what to do with his knees that he found increasingly complicated as the years improved, once in place they tended to lock and fall off to sleep. He needed to collect enough strength in his shoulders to make his next move graceful. His feet, of course, might as well be dead, what with all the blood pooled at his groin, and he’d have to clutch the corner of sheet where it fell from his shoulder in order to roll off, taking his knees with him without uncovering Elizabeth.
“That corner, yes, look at how grey it is. What are you doing? Oh.” It just happened that way with her. Elizabeth had noticed quite some time ago that she had__ at some point on her way to sixty, so actually not that long ago__ she had noticed that her mind just never seemed to lie still with her body anymore. Perhaps it never had and her youthful lovemaking had been simply a lack of responsibility, fewer important thoughts to be busy with. She did feel an obligation to George, though, a duty, and that made her uncomfortable because she knew that a woman of Germaine Greer’s generation__ wonderfully preserved for a horsey woman__ shouldn’t feel guilt so much as annoyance. Annoyance with George for fumbling about, pawing at her like an old spaniel, while she was trying to do her best to deal with this… well, disaster, really. Her sheets weren’t white, her housekeeper was losing it. My god, I don’t know where the vacuum’s kept! And all George can think of… !
It’s not guilt, it’s anger. That’s better, anger’s the thing, the appropriate response to this… well, abuse, really. He has nothing on his mind but the satisfaction of his lust. Rather pathetic when you come to consider it. Forcing himself into the busy office of your mind, trying, in a manner of speaking, to have you over the desk of your responsibilities. It’s too much! Anger’s correct, morally and politically, “It’s morning for godsake, George. Grow up.” He spanked her then. He’d had enough, he threw off the bedcovers, rolled her on her hip and spanked her ass. And because his hand was a banker’s hand, the spanking cracked like whip snaps.
At first he felt very modern and liberated, rather like a letter to a magazine editor, but then he felt like a very tired old school-master who’d lost control of the lesson, like Mister Chips the day the first accusation turns up on the police blotter. It was a feeling he’d come to fear, for fear made him tired and he was tired of feeling afraid. He wanted to feel young and know that everything he did was the right way to do it. He seldom felt justified anymore, he acted and reacted and doubted his right.
It simply had not occurred to him that Elizabeth had never been spanked before, but when he saw the shock in her eyes, he knew. Her mother had died giving her birth and her father had stayed down at the barn, so of course by the time she was old enough to cause trouble, there was only her sister Maude to pull rank and Maude had never been a spanker, she was the kind who moved the outhouse when you were in it. He had done a terrible thing, but he didn’t feel bad so much as stupid. Had he lost control, or taken control? He didn’t know, he couldn’t tell. To punish? To prevent? Oh, god, don’t let me start justifying myself to her when I don’t know what I’ve done. You know what you’ve done. But I don’t know why. She deserved it. No! That’s what I mean, you’ll make it her fault, just leave it. Go away and think about it. I can’t. You’d better.
Absorbing the first directly applied physical reproof she had ever endured, the slapping of her husband’s hand on her backside, Elizabeth desperately ignored the melted pleasure of her loins, a startling, unknown pain, and tried on every other emotional response she could muster, including one or two coloured in blood and brains that had previously hung in the back of her mind. She considered Barbra Stanwick and pearl-handled revolvers and pictures of Nancy Reagan flipped through her mind. Silver-plated, I suppose, just a little one, nice tucked under a pillow. If I ever find out what that senile old bitch Quaid’s done with my good sheets…! Her eyes grew round and stayed open for a good while before she noticed and oiled them shut with squirts of eyewash.
George phoned from the bathroom, asking for the car and Clarence, the driver, to be readied for a run up to the lake, then started to dial his secretary, Darla Sampson, at her home number. She’ll be out with her team in this weather. I don’t want her machine. He hung up and turned on the shower. She needs to know what you’re doing. She won’t ask any questions. Thing is__ He bowed his head beneath the spray__ I wish she would, she’d understand this better than I do. I’ll tell Clarence to give her a call when he gets back. Give me a day to think. She’ll cover, always phone if she has to.
Missus Quaid knew Clarence, the ex-piper who chauffeured the big car on the infrequent occasions Mister Preston requested it. Her own Quaid, after all, quartermaster to the Highlanders, had recommended Clarence back when he’d lost his lip to a minor stroke. But that didn’t make her pleased to see him when he appeared in the kitchen doorway to say he had the car out front and ask was ‘The Big Guy’ ready to roll? Normally, Missus Quaid was unusually sensitive to atmospheric pressures, sensing storms before they happened, but she’d been buried in the back pantry all morning rooting through a clatter of pans in pursuit of a sweet rancid smell of old fat and had missed the frost on the second floor. Mister George always informed her of his comings and goings and she was quite sure Clarence was making a damned fool mistake, that his stroke had blown more than a lip, so that when she slipped up the backstairs prepared to roll her eyes with scorn, and found George in his dressing room packing a bag, her announcement, was startled into a question, “Car?”
“Yes. Thank you, Missus Quaid,” George finished folding a shirt into his bag and turned to her, “I’m off up to the lake. Unexpected, I realize, but… diplomatic, I think. Missus Preston’s suffered something of a shock. Last night’s reception wasn’t exactly a happy affair and I’m afraid I’ve… Well, I’ve not helped matters.” For the ten years of their association they had maintained a formalism that protected each other’s secrets, “My respects to your husband, and would he agree to your staying-over for the night? Just tonight, I should think. I’m sure she’ll recover soon enough. She’ll very likely want a tray in her room later. She’s apt to be a bit cross, Missus Quaid, so be vigilant. I doubt I’ll be more than a day or two, but I’ll have Darla call when she has my schedule sorted. You’re in charge, as always, so until we meet again, keep the home fires etcetera.” He looked at her with affection and nodded once, “Thank you, Missus Quaid, I rely on your good sense. Tell Clarence I’ll be down shortly.”
He approached his wife rigid at her dressing table and bent his lips to the back of her head, “I’m going up to the lake, Elizabeth, give us both some time to think. Take care of yourself.” The car was out front as he came down and George thought that Clarence looked a trifle too understanding as he held the door.
Katya Saarila woke at first light fully clothed, cheek down on the diningroom table, a rye crisp clutched in her left hand, her right elbow in a red rind of soft cheese. She then made it naked into her feather bed without surfacing and so managed to sleep soundly till noon, when she woke again, enormously hungry and quite willing to imagine how the cheese had gotten eaten. Goblins. Definitely Little People of some sort, without good homes of their own, get bored, come poking about in respectable people’s houses, getting into all my things, leaving drawers open, throwing stuff all over everywhere, no wonder I can’t keep this place tidy. And they’re into the fridge and they’ll have eaten everything. This has to stop. I’ll set traps. I will. I’ll set leg-hold traps for bad fairies. And you’ll be hung in the town square for Nice Thinking violations. Yes, yes, leg-hold traps with… with poison! Yes, with poisoned bait and… and sharp bamboo stakes and beds of nails and beds of hot coals and… and we’ll get the truth, yes, at long last the truth… Yes, I distinctly remember a bad fairy. Bena got out of the cab at her place, I remember that__
Bena had gotten out of the cab at her place, empress of all she surveyed, risen to new majesty in the glow of the Imperial Trust’s disastrous reception, revealed at last as the true consort, the other woman reduced to tatters. Bena unmistakably had her world by the orb and sceptre. She didn’t sleep.
__I remember that, though I don’t know… Did I pay for the taxi, then? Must’ve. I had money in my hand… Yes, from Maude, she shoved it at me at her house, yes, and then to Bena’s, no forced cash there, not from the gypsy on horseback, the Hungarian hors d’oeuvre, and then to here… Yes? Must have. Maude was on about making sure the driver knew we had money so we wouldn’t be put out in the street just because we’re a thin and dying race. Yes, yes, and the cabby said, “Not so thin, lady,” and Maude demanded to know who his mother was, and it turned out she’s Irish, an O’ something or other, and Maude said not to tip him with her money, he’d only spend it on whisky, and she yelled, “Bog Irish!” when she slammed the car door. I remember that.
Bena had had no need for sleep, or for plum brandy, and so had made herself black tea in a thick tall glass. Reaching into her hair, she’d unpinned the golden filigree crown, left her hair to droop stiff brass wings and slipped the gilded circlet up the waist of her tea glass. She’d carried it from room to room, slowly sipping, as she furnished, discarded, refurbished each room with tables, sofas, men and chandeliers, with pictures, chairs and fire screens, with plate and cavaliers. She’d embroidered the air with tossing fingers and draped and lit and coloured it. A glissade on parquet declared a ballroom, she waved a vast piano before the windows and a line of braided, booted, brave young men stepped forward to her hand. She drank tea.
Elizabeth had known about spanking. How could she not? Wasn’t it an element of the human condition, like shelter, the survival instinct, shoes? Something of the kind. People did it from necessity, to correct misbehaviour. Possibly original sin, she believed, if the Catholics weren’t complete fools. Children, so she understood, had read, seen the film, were quite accustomed to corporal punishment, accepted it and sat up to the table afterward.
She knew, after all she wasn’t stupid, she knew all about spanking, although she personally had managed to avoid the experience. She knew there was controversy amongst those who practiced spanking. Apparently, some people liked it. She was fairly certain she didn’t know any of them, none of her crowd wore leather, except gloves, and she believed – shoes too, of course – that the whole – bags – spanking thing was largely a problem among people who couldn’t manage very well. Belts.
Which meant that she had fallen amongst them! She assumed a mental crouch, scanned the room for her purse, located it in the striped silk lap of a slipper chair, and gave it a mental pat. Her furnishings began to look suspicious, the green and gold striped silk looked shifty. If Quaid’s cheating on the bed sheets, how safe’s the Spode?
I’m a bad manager. My sheets are grey. I’ve been spanked. Just like they said would happen, but it wasn’t Mr. Clean’s big sea-calloused hand, it was George’s glass-smooth banker’s hand, and I… Her mind snapped shut. She’d been spanked for being a bad manager, she could see it now, the sheets were proof, they might fit, but they were grey. Indeed, she was fallen amongst the bad managers.
She needed Maude. Maude would say, Lizzie, it’s okay. No, she won’t, she’ll be mean, she’ll say it serves me right, but she won’t say it that way, she’ll say, “It’s the chute, Bessie, downhill from here!” That’s what she’ll say, I know her. It’s her fault I’ve never been spanked before. I had the right to know. She’s deprived me of my rights! Abuse! She’s abused me. I knew it, I knew it. They say a third of women, and I’m certainly not one they’d have missed, a third of us have been abused. And by family members! My own sister didn’t spank me and look what it’s done to my life. I need Maudie, I’m a bad manager.
Old as she was and without responsibility, Tillie Sutherland found that she seldom slept past sun-up anymore. She could lie abed if she liked for hours, wondering why, trying to worry, drifting in and out of the dreams of people she’d never met, escaping dull care in vivid memory, hiding under the blanket, but then the extra lie-about would mean finally rising stiff as well as sore, so it was best that she poked the dry sticks of her body from under the eiderdown, to try a moment for balance, to lurch to the chair, to lift the tartan flannel and fling it, one dry wrist popping, over the blade of her back. She needed to be in her kitchen before her daughter arose.
Bea was awake, in fact, she’d say she hadn’t slept at all, would insist she was only resting her eyes, despite the snoring. But she really was awake and horrified. It had come to the worst at last. Disaster, destruction, collapse had finally happened, complete and utter, unretractable misbehaviour and humiliation, in a bank, in front of people. Branding couldn’t be worse. Starting to bleed between Sunday hymns couldn’t… Bea’s eyelids ached over a fury of tears. She needed coffee, but her mother had passed down the hall to the backstairs and it was too late.
Tillie poured herself the first cup, strong and clear, coffee the way Bea could never learn to make it, from fresh cold water and heaping spoons. The way Stewart liked it, the way he told her to make it even when it was scarce or dear, better one proper cup than a half-dozen weak ones.
Bea felt her entire self, body and soul, cut to the quick. She twisted beneath the bedclothes, in mortification, she thought, of the flesh and of the spirit. Well, maybe not the flesh, really, other than repeated cold sweats she didn’t suffer so much on the surface, no gridirons or lashings, but surely the crushing of her mind and heart, thought and feeling pounding each other to a jelly, more than balanced the absence of rack and coals. Besides, she argued, her inability to take any breath deeper than an ashtray, mouth-breathing she thought it was, could be considered mortification of the flesh. Yes, and it could be my heart, too, I think it’s fast. So, it’s total, body and soul, complete mortification. And Bea thrust the blankets from her chin and let the tears flow and as they ran she sucked great gulps of air.
Tillie cradled her cup to her nose for the rich black smell and up with it slipped a ripe and weedy memory of a smoking pipe and she hollered, “Get that foul damned thing out of my parlour, Stewart Sutherland!” She clattered her cup to the kitchen counter and stalked off through the hall to the front room, furious with her husband’s slyness. He wasn’t there, but the smell of his pipe was enough, “Again and again, till I’m blue in the face, get out of the house, or into the cellar with that stinking old pipe and when you’re down there take a look at the furnace, we’ll need it on soon enough, if we still have a roof over our heads after last night’s shenanigans. What with wearing that hat and bawling in a bank, Bea could have us hounded into the poorhouse for all I know what those people can get up to. She’s just not appropriate. Hats were a thing, it’s true, for a long time – who knows better than I do? Sewed net and straw and bugle beads to get you to the altar. But you’d hardly see a hat in church today and d’ you think your daughter’s even noticed? And tears! Look at her cross-eyed… Tears! It’s just a mercy she doesn’t still wet herself.”
Loud as it was, her father’s name caught Bea mid-snuffle, so that her breath stopped and her ears pricked up in time to catch ‘stinking old pipe’, her own name, and ‘poorhouse’, before she choked and gasped and coughed for air. Watching her breathing to keep her throat open, she heard nothing more, but her focus slid from the heave of her chest to imagine her mother leaning in a doorway shouting at an empty room and she thought, I’d rather be dead. I would, I really would. She’s away at it again and I can’t take it. Senile. She’s senile she’s senile she’s senile. There. I can’t take it. I won’t. I’ll die. I mean it.
Tillie stumped into the morning gloom of the parlour, snatched up an arm cover of plush emerald ferns and waved it snapping in the air before the chair. “For the sake of Heaven, man, I’ve the Institute here this afternoon, Missions and tea and we have to organize the Fowl Supper. D’ you think I want the Lettie Girls in here with their noses slappin’ after the smell of your smoke? Pair of damned terriers, yappin’ and snuffin’, breathing pastilles, stuffin’ wet hankies in their sweater sleeves. And they’ll bring their godforsaken pickles!”
The Lettie Girls, although dressed identically, were not twins. Velma was seventy, Vera sixty-two. A known fact, though not visibly apparent, for they appeared equally lined, sallowed and starched with age. Old-fashioned without calculation, their gardening frocks and hats and gloves and shoes, their cloth coats, fur collars, round felt brims, summer lisle and winter woolen stockings were what they had always liked and still managed to preserve.
Their mother Annie’s father had surveyed the county, built a house with the money and died of influenza, his wife following within the week. The house was high-pitched Victorian provincial, gaunt yellow brick dressed in a double front of bays with a parsonage porch and trefoil gingerbread in every eave.
Albert Lettie, coveting respectability, had accepted the house from Annie as her bride-price and ever after resented the cost of upkeep. He’d been so greedy for the house, he’d not counted the cost of heating high-ceilinged parlours, of keeping the paint in trim, and when his job went with the failure of the banks, they had barely made do with a big garden and Annie working out to laundry. Summers, the girls scoured and cleaned in a fishermen’s lodge on the river and ran up two outfits to a pattern on a treadle machine.
Velma was boarding with cousins and attending the Normal School in Orillia the year Annie died. She brought her diploma home to the grade three class in Strawbridge and Albert arranged with the School Board to collect her salary himself. With a bit of a push, Vera followed in her sister’s wake, took up the grade twos and doubled Albert’s income. Quarterly, he handed them the same allowance he’d settled on Annie at marriage and retained the rest for the keep of the house. The girls went on making do with too little, wearing coats in the house and preserving every stump and stalk from the garden. Believing Albert to be the pattern of men, they stayed unwed.
Albert died the autumn Velma passed cruelly into menopause and that winter, in an orgy of heat, she uncovered the tin trunk buried in the coal bin. With Albert’s hoard of cash and their own incomes finally in hand, the girls understood that they had been fools never to question his use of their money. Pride dictated. They allowed themselves a car – Velma took lessons – which was kept with great care, and heated the house as much as they liked, but otherwise maintained their frugal public face and added quarterly to the box under the coal. ‘Mean as a Lettie’, people said, and they no longer meant Albert.
The Lettie Girls pickled. “Puckered old maids,” Tillie’d said more often than enough, watching her daughter’s lips purse, “They get sucking the alum and forget to drop it in the crock. Use so much bluestone their icicles look like blueberry popsicles. Wouldn’t know how they taste, nasty, I expect, I’m not one for abuse.”
And Bea would force a deep sigh through her nose, “Mother, you know very well what they taste like, don’t tell stories.”
“How would I?”
“Don’t be silly, I’ve seen them on your plate at any number of church…”
“Never!”
“Now that’s enough. You have, I’ve seen you. The Girls are always so good about doing the relish plates for…”
“On my plate, maybe, I’ll grant you that. On my plate, but never over the gums.”
“Mother, you are…”
“Not fool enough to pretend the Lettie Girls are normal. Lord, Bea, they dress the same, they walk the same, they talk the same… For crying out loud, the damp hankies in their sleeves match! They’ve eight years difference between them and they go walking around like a salt and pepper set, always have. Their icicles are flatulent, syrupy and blue and I haven’t bitten into a Lettie pickle since Velma was eighteen, the year Annie finally had the sense to up and die on that miserable coot, Albert, and Velma declared that she and poor Vera would carry the torch, their mother’s pickles would never die.
“But Annie’d never put a word to paper, she was close with a secret and the old miser was likely too cheap to let her have pen and ink, and Velma thought too much of herself to use Maxine Aicheson’s recipe from the Institute Cookbook, so she pretended she’d learned her pickles at her mother’s knee and to this day… Stop shuffling your feet, girl, I’m telling you this for your own good! Ever since, Velma Lettie’s pickles have been blue and her hair’s been mouse brown henna. Vera’s too, of course.”
“Oh, Mother,” Bea was ever exasperated by this point, “You don’t know it’s henna.”
“No, of course not. Their hair hasn’t changed in sixty-five years. The style hasn’t. Of course it’s henna! They matched the colour back when they first bought those scrappy fur neck-pieces they drag out of mothballs every Decoration Sunday. Mind you, I’m not saying there’s any great harm in them, the Girls, not the weasel collars, but just the same… All those years of sniffin’ chalk dust… They still substitute, you know. All the youngsters they’ve hunkered over in their siamese twin-sets, generations of hot breath and ruler abuse. It makes you think.”

“They love to take a knife to a cucumber, Stewart. In truth,” Tillie took another swipe at the air, then smoothed the cover back over the arm of the chair, “In truth, they’re man-hungry old virgins and I don’t want ‘em in here crawlin’ all over my armchairs. So get to the cellar, man.”
Bea beat her fists into the quilts and denied herself responsibility for the crashing shambles of her daughter’s career reduced to an embarrassment of ripped canvas and shattered wood heaped about their feet in the shocked echo of the Imperial Trust’s smart new foyer. And Katherine’s marriage! Like her own, a husband gone… Why? Bea denied the responsibility, but she took the entire guilt to be her own. She’d committed some monstrous sin against propriety to deserve such humiliation; some failure of well-mannered behaviour had earned punishment. A lapse of motherhood, she thought. Not strict enough with Katherine in her bringing-up, for surely such disasters resulted from an excess of self-regard, of forwardness, of rudeness.
Don’t you be bold! She ought to have been sterner. It had been hard. It was a father’s place to be stern. And I lost hers. Well, it wasn’t deliberate. Don’t be silly. No. Well, it wasn’t. He left without a fight. He left without a word, Bea. Yes. I guess he didn’t have much in the way of stern about him anyway. Face it, your own father was never the tough one either. Oh Lord, is it just me, my men who’re sweet as butter, and as soft? You should’ve had more. I think maybe now I should have. I couldn’t then, I thought I’d lose my place, I wouldn’t be nice. And I never did see another man I wanted so much. My father and my husband weren’t tough. Tillie was tough. Yes, the way I should have been with Katherine. Oh Lord, it is my fault.
With Stewart out of the chair, Tillie gave the back a couple of thumps to remove any lasting impression. Her hand noticed the chill on the nap and a sharp, quick sight of her husband in a coffin stabbed ice in her belly and fear shot anger to her tongue, “Annie hated him, you know. Hated his miserly old guts, she told me once, so much she wished him dead. A mouthful for Annie, she kept her lips bit shut.
“Albert Lettie was so cheap he’d hop to the cellar first thing out of bed to measure the gauge on the oil tank, to make sure Annie’d not sneaked the furnace on in the night. The woman wore an overcoat in her own kitchen. The man wouldn’t buy an apple, he knew every tree grew next a fence in the county. But Annie kept her tongue and did what was right for twenty years. Except she didn’t give him a boy, like she should’ve done. Like I didn’t you, Stewart. I suppose that made him meaner than he was, though he was always mean.
“You haven’t come to hate us, have you, Stewart? Bea and me? Only women to dream with? Do men need sons to dream up dynasties? It makes sense. When you’re out to the back fence with your pipe, or down by the furnace, what d’ you imagine? Strong backs and long acres and cattle penned in oak, loving cups and garlands for good breeding? How it might have been, would be, if you’d had one boy to build it with.” Tillie followed back the hall to the kitchen, retrieved her cup from the counter and took a long swallow to wet the tears dried in her throat, “Did you ever dream for Bea, Stewart? I never could. There’s never seemed an ounce of cussedness in her worth dreaming for. I imagined her married and not a worry. I guess you could say that was a dream.”
From the bottom stair, Bea watched her mother drink coffee and speak to the air. Hiding in the bedcovers had failed to protect her, the chill on her soul couldn’t be warmed by eiderdown and putting an end to the torture required her to be up and about and planning. If she was going to die, she’d need to see that Tillie and Katherine didn’t make a mess of things. So she had forced her corns into her traveling slippers, a bit of petit-point on beige, wrapped herself in her away-from-home kimono of flowered cretonne, poked her fingers through her hair, and sighing a deep breath of prayer, had slipped down the backstairs to the kitchen.
“Albert Lettie ignored his girls, because they were girls, and Annie, because he believed she’d deceived him, as if he’d had some divine right to sons. And Annie came to hate his guts, his miserly old guts, she said. Couldn’t even have the Institute to the house, they’d have to sit in their coats and he wouldn’t give her the money for a pound of tea. She longed for him to die and had to do it herself to get relief. You’d wonder if Annie dreamed husbands for those two. I doubt Velma and Vera ever imagined marriage to be a good thing.” Tillie noticed that she was staring at the cellar door for some reason and caught sight in the corner of her eye of a loud flowered gown at the foot of the stairs. She blew her breath and drained her cup.
“Mother!” Bea stepped to the kitchen floor, letting the little heel of her slipper crack on the boards, “You’re talking to yourself again.” She made for the cupboard to get herself a mug. “I wish you wouldn’t still use this old percolator,” she poured for herself, “The high heat’s dangerous, you could wander off and leave it.” She took a deep drink and the heat ran down to her bowels. “I think you should get yourself some sort of coffee machine, be a lot safer, they have ones now that shut off automatically when they’re left alone. I think…”
“You’d like to have me shut off automatically when you leave me alone, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t have to worry I’d boil dry when your back’s turned, eh.”
Bea had no time for nonsense, if she was going to give up her life, she had to sort out her mother first, “You’ve sounded pretty close to cracking the pot the past two days, Mother. Yesterday you stood in the drive and yelled at the backyard. Last night you had far too much to drink and talked like a… I don’t know, a hippie, or something – rude remarks about the fruit in your drinks, flirting with men young enough to… And old ones, too! And here this morning you’re banging around the house yelling at Dad and planning weddings for the Lettie Girls.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that.” And Tillie burst into giggles at the flashing of images that rushed through her eye; matching blue garters on dry wrinkled thighs, matching men with matching blue pickles for… “Or, maybe I would.” She tried to stop laughing and poured herself more coffee.
Bea set down her mug and folded her arms in a confusion of flowers, “Maybe we’d better think again about you giving up this house. You know the Chateau’s really lovely now the landscaping’s had the chance to fill out.”
“It could be in the middle of the bush and it’d still be a nursing home!”
“Oh, it’s not! It’s a retirement home. You have your own things, your own privacy, everything you need, just more manageable, is all.“
“Everything shoved into one room and a bath the size of a privy. A one-holer. Over my dead body, Bea.”
“Oh, don’t say things like that!” Bea tapped the wood of a cupboard door, “You are completely wrong about everything, as usual. The Chateau has quite nice little apartments with real bedrooms and their own kitchenettes and very modern bathrooms with those sensible handles and…”
“Crib rails, I’ll bet. And the doors are wide enough to get a coffin through.”
“…and really big storage cupboards and proper alarm systems and good locks on the doors…” She swept an arm at the house, “I mean, look at this place, seven, eight doors to the outside and you could break through any one of them with a wet sneeze, and more windows than you can count…”
“Eighteen, not counting the porches.”
“You’re not safe!”
“I’m not sorry, either. And I would be in that old people’s home. Worse than the poorhouse. I’d rather mend shirts and make license plates than sit around listening to that bunch up there carry on about the price of their pills and what they think they had for lunch. I’d be around the bend in no time.”
“Mother, you’ve been around the bend for the last half-hour. You hollered at Dad to get his pipe out of the house. I heard you.” Bea nibbled a lip, “And you asked him if he ever dreamed for me, since you never bothered. Ring any bells?”
Bells. Wedding bells, wedding belles… and again Tillie saw blue garters, blue veins and old yellowed flesh, a parody of ritual. Velma and Vera in satin and eyelet lace was a mockery of a girl’s one best illusion. A mockery. And Tillie saw a wedding party framed in the arch of her kitchen window and the bride was a boy and the groom was a girl and all the attendants were reversed… “Yes, oh yes, we must have a Mock Wedding!” Hands clapping with excitement, Tillie did a small jig on the kitchen floor. “We did when we were girls. They were ring-bearers, the Lettie Girls were.” She paused and took a look at her feet, “In short pants and boots, I’m sure it was them… I remember two girls.” She lifted her head at Bea, “It wasn’t you? No, it was long before you. We used to have fun then, dressing-up and play-acting. You never did that. Was it Maude and Lizzie Everett? D’ you suppose… No, it was the Girls. There must be some old snaps of that.”
Stinging witand a deep sucking breath, she made herself smile at her daughter, “I expect you’re right, but I’ve no idea what to do about it. I’ve just gotten this way somehow.”
“It has to stop.” Bea’s voice was a husky whisper of tears, “It has to stop.”
Tillie knew better, “I don’t believe it does, dear.”
“Well, you have to change it.”
“Yes, but I don’t know how.”
Tillie was matter of fact and the very flatness of tone told Bea that her mother was speaking the truth, and she felt a softness gathering despite herself. “Doesn’t it bother you? Doesn’t it frighten you? It frightens me.”
Tillie considered that point for Bea’s sake, “Not really, no. I suppose I’ve become used to it. It’s friendly enough. Around here it’s company, and when I’m out, which isn’t often, you know, I’m usually with somebody who’s got a weaker grip on it than I do, so it doesn’t show.” She fluttered a hand at her daughter, “Not you, of course, I’m safe with you.” She looked sly, “I always know where I am when you’re about.” She told herself to watch it, she could lose sympathy here.
“It’s why I carry a stick, d’ you see. You worry I’m going to fall over, but there’s nothing wrong with my legs, the hips are original and they can still do a shimmy. But a stick’s a handy thing. You just fold your hands in a ladylike way,” she laid one hand across the other in the air between them, “and turn yourself into a tripod, whenever your mind steps out on you.”
“Oh, Mother!” Bea was horrified and terribly sad.
“Oooh, Daughter!” Tillie mocked despair with a flip of her hands, “It’s not that bad. Have you never noticed that people give berth to a fellow with a camera set up in even the busiest crowd? And people step round a statue, not into it. It’s the pose, maybe, or it’s the three-leggedness of the thing. A picture on an easel, now, people step aside.”
Or a three-legged dog! Bea shaded her brow with a hand and rolled her eyes for her own relief. It wasn’t possible to support pity for this vainglorious old egoist, “You think you’re a monument. You think anything and everything should be excused by your monumental vanity.” Bea’s breathing quickened. Tillie raised an eyebrow and waited. “And last night?” Bea was sarcastic and hard, “Were you a tripod last night, Mother? When you raised your precious stick and tore a hole through Katherine’s painting, what kind of monument was that? I’ll bet we looked a picture in front of that crowd!”
“Oh, for petesake! We’d have looked pretty damned foolish trapped in a heap underneath it. Could’ve broken bones, smothered, before they got it off. We’d have been brought to our knees at the very least with the weight of it. And I’d not kneel to Lizzie Everett, or Preston, or whatever she is. It was going to be the ruin of the picture anyway, when it landed on us, better to be standing for it. Katherine understands that, I don’t know why you can’t see it.”

Maude Matthew didn’t want to get up, she wanted to stay huddled under her mound of blankets and think about convenient death. Where, for instance, could she get the cyanide capsule to crush with her teeth some morning when she woke, some morning not much worse than this. Or where could she get herself hooked to the intravenous opium drip she’d heard so much about, that allowed the patient to push the button herself and keep on pushing. Or what about those tales of aboriginal types just lying down and dying when they felt like it. It wasn’t snowdrops on kittens, or whatever, but it’s what she wanted to think about.
Whether or not despair would allow her to pick her teeth out of their cup, rinse them, and mouth them into place to break the cyanide ampoule, that needed to be mulled over. Could her gums break glass? Would it be glass? Glass in your dentures? I don’t think so, how awful. Would you notice? Would you care? If she just lay still and concentrated on not being, or didn’t concentrate on being, whichever way the aborigines went about it… Now where would you look that up? Under religion? Or philosophy. Maybe anthropology, or sociology, there’s that woman… Kubla and Ollie, or something like that, she does books about dying. You’ve never read her. I know, but I could, she’s in the shops. You’d think there’d be something in the encyclopedia. Psychology, pathology… Hey, I bet there’s something in Toynbee, there’s always something in Toynbee, bottom shelf in the bathroom, I’ll go… Put that blanket down! You’re not getting out of this bed alive.
She yanked the top blanket, the red Hudson Bay, tight across her nose to slow her breathing. Oh Lord, I’ll never make it! I’ll never manage to keep my mind off a cigarette and a cup of coffee. I’ll go into withdrawal and convulsions and then I’ll go crazy and get up and face the kettle and find my smokes and then I’ll go on living. Damned addictions! She coughed, felt the weight of blankets on her chest and rolled onto her side toward the window. I suppose you have to prove you’re really in pain before you get the opium button. Like you actually have to be dying. Nice of them to be so thoughtful.
If I got my teeth in, there’d be no real reason not to have a piece of toast first, before the cyanide. Would there? Can you lie down and die on a full stomach, after a proper death-row breakfast? Sausage and ham and bacon and eggs, even a mess of greasy potatoes fried up with onions. I would if I knew I’d be dead before I blew up. There isn’t any bacon. There might be some in the freezer. No, you ate that already. No, there’s another package, a bit in a baggie, from ages ago. You ate it. No I didn’t. We’d better go see.

Feeling herself still to be smarting from the flat of George’s hand, Elizabeth skipped hose and stepped into cream satin knickers, a simply wrapped skirt of pewter wool to the shins, suede pumps, and tucked tight a dull silver poplin shirt. She searched velvet boxes for grey pearls for her ears, but feeling the heat of blood in her lobes, saw an oyster melt and replaced the studs in their case. Fingering through, she encountered her old circle pin, a thick hoop of pink Italian gold, once given to herself at Havergal for the cost of her book allowance; she had borrowed texts and was avid for chastity, making herself a club that excluded sluts.
The absence of a circle pinned to the breast was an absence of hymen, according to dogma, and Elizabeth was Abbess. High church, but not Catholic, the schoolgirls had limited themselves to anguish and would have been as severe with flagellation as they were with fornication. Birthdays were celebrated with surprise feasts and Little Womanish sentimentality, no boisterous whacks. Elizabeth had remained unspanked.
The brooch was a hollow ring, she saw that now, not the infinite circle, but the empty hole. She tried in the mirror to mock her own eyes as she slid the pin through the throat of her blouse. It wasn’t that she’d liked George’s hard hand, but her flesh had glowed with heat she hadn’t felt before. She drew on a heavy sweater-coat with dolman sleeves, warm against a chill, loose for air. Too moist for gloves, her hands hanked a square of Liberty over the closed mouth of her carpet purse, and padding down the front stair, an ear cocked to the traitorous Quaid deep in the pantry wrestling roast pans, she tweaked her keys from the hall table, slipped locks out the front door, darted back the drive and once in the garage, drove all automatic into the street.

“Katya, we will go, you and I, to visit Maude Matthew, she will give us coffee. She told me this,” Determined to brook no resistance, Bena had not bothered to telephone and now cantered a circle about Katya’s diningroom table, “That Missus George, she will be having the psychiatrist and we must help her sister to decide this.”
“You evil harpy.” Katya calmly munched fruit and cheese, buttered a rusk, “You knew who she was, you’ve been carrying on god knows how long with her husband. You dragged me along, lying through your teeth…”
“I did not speak a lie from this mouth, Katya!”
“…lying through your great, long, aristocratic beak, then, Harpy! Deliberately not telling me what was going on, deliberately setting me up – Me? – the whole damned world set up to explode just because you can’t resist… What? What is it you can’t resist, anyway? Men? Disaster? Explosions? What? And now you want to go hang your buzzard beak over the corpses!”
Bena reined herself in, fighting her blood’s desire to thrash insult, and resting her whip hand on the back of a chair, threw a hard look at her friend, “Maude Matthew offers coffee.”
“You are not getting another cup of coffee out of me, you gypsy witch, and that’s a promise.” Katya crunched into and spoke around her rusk, beyond manners in her disgust, “You have fast-talked me into making fools of ourselves for the last time, Bena. That woman might just as easily have jumped from that balcony as dropped a picture and you can get right off your horse, I will not be cowed by your princess act, either. I do not offer you coffee. It is not a lapse of hospitality. It is a lapse of interest in your existence.” Katya concentrated on loading a bite of rusk with shavings of jarlsberg, “I will not participate. I’ve quit the circus.”
Pushing a very clear picture of Katya in pigboots and a reindeer shawl from her mind, Bena chose diplomacy, withdrew the chair and arranged herself with magisterial complacency at the table, “It is true that the woman called you a bag lady. So…” She raised an anticipating hand, “… so, you cannot argue, a bag lady, she said, I heard, I am your witness. The Missus George, she saw…” Bena fought back the sight of pigboots, “…she saw my Katya, my European widow-lady friend with a house of her own dressed for a visit because she has been invited by her very good friend to look at the pictures in the Gallery of Ontario Art…”
“Art Gallery of Ontario.” Katya rolled her eyes and shaved cheese.
“Yes, and my Katya squats with her bags in the street, feeding her little apples out, the pigman’s wife! What else could that woman see? Missus George, I understand her.”
“I sat on the benches waiting for you, as I recall, and I made little piles of crabapples because nobody wants to eat them, but they’re beautiful to look at and people should pay attention. It seemed appropriate at the AGO. I wore rubberboots to bother you and who knows, it could always rain. You can’t insult me, Bena. No coffee. I’m not going to play with you.”
“She called you a D.P.!”
“She did not.”
“She should have.”
Katya swallowed. She laid the butter knife beside the cheese and studied the figure enthroned across the table. If the old dead monarchies had thrown a garden party for the families, the Hohenzollerns and the Romanovs down to the Viennese cousins for a picnic spread and a spin of crown and anchor, then this bizarre figure, from brass-coloured top-knot to blood-coloured toes, this Imperial Hungarian gypsy, this vision off a tarot card, wise-woman, witch, fruitcake, expression of fate, this misplaced shard of a culture so long in the saddle that the high, shy viciousness of horses coursed in her nature, then this mad, bedizened, jewel-bedecked kewpie would be the prize for the sack race.
Katya sighed, nodded, and pushed from the table, “Okay, Bena, coffee. But it’s going to cost you. Okay? You have to answer a skill testing question and I expect a serious answer.” Holding her friend’s gaze tight with her own, Katya hesitated, took a deep breath and asked, “Why are you so relentlessly ethnic, Bena?”

For once, Elizabeth was so preoccupied with the scramble of thought and emotion, the cruel things her sister would say, the cruel thing her husband had done, her memory shriveling from last night’s behaviour, her skin tingling through satin and wool to feel the leather seat beneath her, so unusually preoccupied was she, that the staggering slowness of mid-town traffic failed to irritate her.
Having shown her hand in public, the hand with the knife in it, Elizabeth needed change. She knew she had no choice but to slide herself out of the gallery game. For the sake of face she would pay to keep her memberships intact and she would try, with some adroit politicking and the weight of George’s name, to get her privileges extended on a promise of good behaviour. But it was certainly obvious that she needed to find herself a new stunt.
It would have to be one of the Muses, of course, there were standards to maintain. Who’s left? Dance is always so dowdy. Fanatical. No one with an ounce of sense can believe those bodies, so not Terpsicore, all buttocks and… Stringy little waifs and the men with those… No, not dance! Nothing obsessive. Poetry? You’d have to drink coffee and wear tights and none of the furniture has legs. I don’t imagine they even have a Board, too busy being sensitive. Someone should tell them it’s the incense.
Music! Who’s that, Harpsicore? Don’t be silly, you’re cheating. There you are, you see, I know nothing about it. Perfect. I adore music as long as it’s not bothering me. I’m never what you could call passionate about it, really only a bit of cheap sentiment when all’s said, although I do have an ear for it just the same, I know when it’s not what it should be.
So, the best music then, the classics, the Percy Faiths, the Henry Mancin… no, perhaps not… The Beethovens, I guess, and the Mozarts, and I’ve always liked the sound of that Rachmaninov, such a rich sounding name, so Russian, so fur-hatted, such great tall guardsmen with… and that nice Borodin, a really musical name if you know how to pronounce it. And yes, I think there should be a little group with someone to tell about the music… Well, there you are, we’d need a conductor. I’ll have to look about, there must be some, quite a few I’d imagine, what with all the cut and slash to culture, symphonies going begging. And there, I’ll need a symphony. One of each, I guess, a conductor and a symphony. You mean an orchestra, a symphony’s what they play. Yes, whatever. D’ you suppose they come as a set? Can you get them from Venice? Do I mean Vienna? I imagine, yes, cream cakes, Europeans, yes, that passionate blood of the… uh… whatever, those big prairie sort of places, those sort of people, men. Yes, attractive ethnics on horseback with sabres rattling on long muscled… Horses, yes. And harness.
A Russian, I imagine, would be too dear, they’re rare, expensive to keep. Now a Hungarian, or a Pole, for instance, might be a little more grateful for the attention. I suppose one shouldn’t expect the whole… band, the symphony… You mean the orchestra. Yes, the band, we can’t expect all of them to be European, too. Well, obviously there are local people, just Canadians, who manage to do pretty much the same thing. So, you’d make do with those and find a nice, ripe European to cheese it up. Sounds like a recipe, girl. Something to do, something to do, something to… Yoo-hoo, Ethnics! Elizabeth hummed and sang her way into her sister’s drive and came to with a jam on the brakes and the memory of why she had come, the rush of need she had for comfort and for punishment.
Elizabeth had been taught not to be bold, back when boldness was immodest, not merely brave. She had been taught it, but had not learned it, and so she was bold, indeed, she quite enjoyed being critical and outspoken. But I’m not bossy, I’m sure of that, no matter what Maude says. She’ll be mean, she’ll say what she likes, but she can’t say I’m bossy. She better not. I’ll tell her right away that George spanked me and maybe she won’t go on so long about last night.
She shoved open the car door hard on its hinges, a thing she knew George hated to see, adjusted the mirror and tied the square of Liberty into a scarf on her head in what she believed to be the Jackie Kennedy style, found dark glasses in her carpet bag and slipped them on. Ringing her sister’s doorbell, she was quite sure she looked like the victim, heroic, bereft, perhaps even considering the veil.

Why was she ethnic? Relentlessly ethnic, so it would seem that her dear Katya, a friend of so many years, whose morality she hadn’t thought of in question, chose to think. Why was she ethnic? Bena had to take a sharp bite of her lip and breathe through her nose. A quick thought was necessary, not for herself, but for the unimaginable tactlessness of Katya’s question.
How could dear Katya have so abandoned the finely woven veil, the careful, embroidered diplomacy of a stranger in the land? Perhaps she simply did not have it ever. Once she was a Finn, and then she was a Canadian. One and then another. I do not know how she can do it, perhaps it is because she is round, like a hen. Move her nest, she will follow it, and she will sit again. Perhaps that is what it is. Bena’s back arched against the chair. I am the eagle flown from the Imperial shield, I am the real thing.
“I am Hungarian, Katya, I am not ethnic. In this country I am Canadian because it is Canada that makes the tickets, but who I have come from is just as important as where I am, and so I am still Hungarian. They worry in this country that too many cultures in one place will fight with one another. It is not the cultures that fight, it is the bad-mannered bullies who fight.”
“You bully me all the time,” Katya set water to boil, “Come here, go there, wear something nice!”
“Aach, but you are a friend, it is good to expect the best from a friend.”
“The best is what you want.”
“The best is what you will give to me after a fight.” Bena eyed the can in her friend’s hand, “Do you keep the good coffee for special, Katya? A visit from God you are saving it for?”
“You’re getting this, it’s perfectly good coffee.”
“Excellent! Then we will put in it a little taste of your pear brandy, so special, and it will be perfectly wonderful European widow-lady with a house of her own type coffee. Yes? How I envy your sense of occasion, my Katya. Me, I have but myself and a few poor rags and bits of old bone to offer, while you…” Bena swept a bangle clash of arms at the vivid, jumbled clutter of eating, sleeping, working and playing that cushioned and bundled her friend’s rooms, “…you make such a rich, busy ceremony for everything you do. Your food you eat with great display and with gratefulness. You are eager, I think, to be warm and happy. How fast you make a sweater, make a flower to grow. Aach, a miracle. Your colours… beh, they are noisy and I cannot like them, but you are so happy in them, dressed in your best idea, I must smile.” Bena blew an affectionate kiss at Katya spooning coffee by the stove, “Good and strong, my Katya, that the poîre may rest on top.”
Shaking her head at the highwire act, Katya trickled steaming water over the grounds, “Why do you really want to visit Maude Matthew, Bena? Just for aggravation’s sake?”
“No. Because I like her. It is not so often, Katya, that you and I find people to like. She may have a sister who belongs on the couch, but… That is not for me to say.”
“No, it’s not. You like her because she stuck up for your George. What am I saying, your George! Katya clanged the kettle to the stove, “Her sister’s husband, George! See? There you go again, spinning me up in your wicked web. You are incorrigible.”
“I am what, my Katya?” Genuinely curious, Bena was still ready to rear.
“Smooth, Bena, really smooth. Get cups,” Katya tilted her head at a corner cabinet filled with a lilac coffee set, “Muumi’s cups,” and finished pouring into the filter. Setting the coffee pot on the table, she pushed the honey jar nearer Bena who rolled a delicate porcelain cup in her fingers humming. Katya went to the cabinet herself and from the bottom cupboard lifted a quart mason jar and from the drawer a small silver ladle, “You pour the coffee. I’ll do the pear.”
“You are good to me, my friend.” Bena poured and stirred honey into her cup.
“Yes, well, I need a hair myself after last night.” Careful not to rattle the perfect naked pear resting on the bottom, Katya opened the jar, dipped the ladle and tipped brandy gently onto coffee. They smiled at each other over their cups, breathing up the fumes, “To the good things in life, Bena.”
“And to God, Katya. Will you come with me to visit Maude Matthew? She invited us.”
“She did, didn’t she? And she handed her sister the knife, didn’t she? And she raved at the cab driver last night, if I remember correctly. Is she nuts, Bena?”
“She is like us, Katya. Maude Matthew is one of us.”
“Yes, okay. Well, let me get some clothes on and…”
“Perhaps you could wear something…”
“Shut up and drink your coffee.”

“What d’ you mean, you’re a bad manager?” Maude growled in the gloom of her livingroom, “A manager’s somebody who manages to get the job done despite all sorts of damn fool interference from the likes of you. Your Missus Quaid’s a manager, she runs your house on her little bent back, cooking, cleaning, picking up after you. Manager! You haven’t managed anything heavier than a purse in your life, Lizzie.”
Rocking her thighs on a cutting edge of Scandinavian design, Elizabeth bridled and kicked, “Don’t even mention that traitor’s name. And it’s not as if you’ve ever carried a lunch bucket, Maudie!”
“Maybe I never worked out, but I’ve always done my own housework, Elizabeth.” Maude was weighty with elderhood.
Stabbing her jaw at the mossy haze of the under-upholstered parlour, Elizabeth poked at her sister, “Not that that really amounts to much, since nothing ever happens here, but it’s not as if you ever had to. Harry could always afford it and so can you.” She bunched her face at the old-fashioned tat of her sister’s Danish Modern.
Maude knew that expression, “Bugger off, Lizzie, it came with the house. I’ve never wanted somebody else poking into my things. And I’ve never expected somebody else to get into a sweat so I could do my nails and sit on my backside.”
‘Backside’ did it. Elizabeth choked and gagged out a sob, “Oh, Maudie, he spanked me!” delivered on a rising wail.
“Who did? Spanked you? George did? Well, hallaloo, hallaloo. Lord knows you’ve forever had it coming to you, let alone last night’s ridiculous performance, but I’m surprised all the same,” Maude sighed a great breath to keep her lips from curling and slid a hand over her glasses, that a twinkling shouldn’t show, “I suppose one of those spa places is the best thing for you now, one of those Betty Ford sort of booby hatches where they shrink you all round, not a fat farm so much as a funny farm, a Harbour Light with menus. You’re nuts, Lizzie, you’re over the top this time. It’s kind of late for George to start spanking now, my fault, I suppose, should have started you early, but you were such a little bawler, it wasn’t worth having to listen to you. Even the pigs couldn’t take it. Remember?”
Elizabeth felt damp quite suddenly, clammy, and she wriggled under wilting poplin, “You’re cruel, Maude. I knew you would be. I told myself on the way over that you’d hurt me, tell me I’m…” she waved surrender with both hands, “…I don’t know, going to hell in a handbasket, I don’t know. But I’m not, you know, I’m just trying to bring a little…” she batted at the venetian light slatting through the air, “…little beauty, a little order, taste, good taste, of course, elegance, yes, well, I bring… culture… you know…” her voice trailed, then rose on consideration, “Culture just needs a little organization.”
Maude rested her eyes closed to relieve exasperation, “You know, you’re just like Mother,” she didn’t have to see to know that her sister had gone rigid, “I wasn’t very old, but I saw enough of her to know that what Old Alice said was true.”
“Cousin Alice?” Elizabeth had only sarcasm for defence, “Dubious source, I’d say.”
Eyes flashed open, “Yes, Cousin Alice! Practical Old Alice, who bought us our husbands, Lizzie. Bought you Havergal and George, bought me a portfolio and Harry. Old Alice was a shopper. Be grateful, girl.
“She said Mother was a bossy, opinionated do-gooder of the worst sort. Didn’t have the faintest inkling of what she was doing good about. Not a clue. She was nice to the poor because she thought they liked tugging their forelocks. She believed in the heathen and thought they went to heaven if they were good servants. Thought that of the Irish, too. She played Committee Lady because she couldn’t knit, couldn’t garden, couldn’t sew and wouldn’t cook. She could afford to have the heavy work done and believed the hired girls were quite happy doing it for her. Mother believed she was gentry, Alice said, and if you think air-headed, bone-lazy, self-regard is gentle, then Mother had it made, Alice said. And you…” Finding herself hunched with her palms on her knees, Maude rolled back in her chair and reached for her cigarettes, “…you’re just like her.”
With nothing left for protection, Elizabeth drooped from her perch on the thin couch and sought pity, “You don’t care that he hit me, abused me.” She pursed her lips at her sister’s cigarette, “I’m one in three, you know. Perhaps it’s four, it may even be four, but I’m one of… whatever, you know, just a statistic,” she raised woebegone eyes, “a number, just a number, Maudie, ohhh…” and she burst into a bawl.
Maude’s elbows went to her knees, her head in her hands, smoke curling through her hair, “Lord God, give me strength, shut up, Elizabeth. Shut up, or I’ll give you something to really cry about.” She shook her head and smoked deeply until the sounds of stifled sobs choked and gagged and finally settled to rapid, ragged sniffles. “What’s wrong, Elizabeth?” There was only an irritating snivel in reply.
“Lizzie,” Maude’s head had begun to remind her of last night’s scotch and this morning’s intention of dying in bed, comfortably. Having noted that the afternoon movie was a Hopalong Cassidy that she’d never seen, she hoped a little encouragement might dry her sister’s tears and get her off the couch, “Lizzie… you’ve been a grand success. Till last night, anyway. D’ you not think I know you think I envy you? D’ you think I don’t? Well, I do. Of course I do. How could I not? You’ve always lived the very life you wanted…”
“Oh, now, that’s not true,” Elizabeth swallowed a sniff, “George doesn’t let me use the car, you know, with Whatsisname, the driver. And I certainly deserve an Order more than that bleached out alcoholic snob, Isob…”
“Lizzie, Lizzie, if there wasn’t a pea, you wouldn’t even know you’re a princess. You’ve got your own car, for petesake, and they’ll give you a gong like everybody else soon as you start losing body parts, quit your bitching, you’ve managed to have whatever you like so far. You got the dolls and the dresses, you got Havergal and hats, you got the parties and the attitudes and tinker tailor soldier sailor, Lizzie, you got yourself a merchant chief and you’ve lived like a princess ever after. What George puts up with from you… The man’s a prince. Close as makes no difference.
“I, on the other hand, got you,” Maude stubbed her butt and fell back in her chair, “And then I got Harry. The two of you…” she rolled her head and snorted a sigh, “…always scrambling for higher ground, not a care in the world for what you stood on…”
“Oh, Maude!”
“…or who.”
“Harry was a Greeter!” Snatching up her bag from the broadloom, Elizabeth stuffed in her discarded sunglasses and the Liberty scarf, dug out a tissue to dab at her nose, “A Joiner and a Greeter, Maude. I’ve certainly never been…”
“What, agreeable? Mind you, he was only agreeable if he was with the boys, but then, he always was. No, Lizzie, the real difference between you’s that Harry loved the idea of the Round Table and you’ve always wanted the Head Table. Me, I’m just your kitchen stool, something to perch on when you need a comfort, something to stand on when you want to reach.”
“Oh, yes, yes, yes, poor Maude! Who never made an effort, who booked herself a corner in childhood and couldn’t even be bothered to decorate it. Look at this room, for godsake, just the way you bought it! You never wanted to do anything but read and you never have. God knows you never tried to put yourself forward, even Old Alice had to trap Harry for you with her whisky money. And Lord knows, I’ve certainly done my best for you.
“All these years you’ve practically spit on me for the things I try to do. You’ve no idea how much you hurt me when I encourage you and you sneer and say mean things, things people don’t even say, or they shouldn’t anyway. But I only try to do some good around me and I try to get you involved and you spit! You probably thought you were being very funny when you invited those dreadful women to my reception yesterday. That carnival, that side-show gypsy and her bag-lady friend. I’ll bet you thought that was a big laugh at my expense and look at the disaster they turned it into. You’re a monster of cruelty, Maude, my own sister!” She made a snuffling blow into her tissue and looked betrayed.
Maude stared in disbelief, removed her glasses to her lap, massaged the bridge of her nose with one hand, her temples with the other, “Awesome, Elizabeth, you are truly awesome.”
“Well, you did! You invited them.” She suspected it wasn’t undiluted praise.
“I did, yes, I did. I invited them. Well, Katya, really, and she’d mentioned a friend. I did it because you were so insistent that I go and I thought it’d be nice if there was at least one person there I could talk to.” It was a theoretical truth.
“Oh, that’s a lie! You knew who that woman was and you deliberately…”
“No! I did not. I did not know Bena, and I certainly didn’t know she was a friend of George’s.”
“I don’t believe you!” Elizabeth was shrill, scenting equivocation.
“On Mother’s grave, Elizabeth.” Maude was low and flat.
“Well, maybe…” Backing from danger, mulling alternatives, Elizabeth felt the wet Kleenex in her fingers and rid herself of it with a toss at the ashtray, or fruit dish, or… ugly purple glass thing, “Well, somebody did, somebody…” She brushed her fingers dry on a limp little throw-pillow covered in blue denim that… “That’s it! That Paul person knew her. There, at the Gallery, in the afternoon, those women, he knew them! And the husband! He knew the husband, I saw them. The painter girl’s husband was wearing blue jeans and he… Oh, my god! Of course, he’s Bea‘s whatd’y’callit, son-in-law! Maude, do you see? It all fits! They planned the whole thing right there in front of me. They all knew each other, I see it now. He found that Bena creature right there on the street. They’re all street people, you know, these painters and foreigners and… those boys. Just like the winos they all know each other and somebody must’ve seen George being kind to that creature. Apparently, he’d bought her a cup of coffee once. He’s like that. I tell him it’s no use, they can’t appreciate it and they’ll only ask for more, but George is foolish that way, something happened to him in the War, you know. And they used her and that simpy Bea McAlpine and her old bat of a mother to make a scene over that…” Elizabeth’s jaw dropped long enough to take a breath, “That painting, Martin! That conniving, deceitful, traitorous little… Fag. There, I’ve said it. It’s his mother’s fault, Madge, she was always a dingbat, she’s supposed to have the best taste, I always suspected her, just pretends to like you, she couldn’t make friends at school.” Confident that she’d reached the bottom of it, Elizabeth slumped to the back of the couch, “I see it all now, jealousy, the mad passion, Madge always envious of my friends, Bea hateful when she lost her husband, just because I mentioned the obvious, and this Bena creature… Well, possibly just mad, I suppose. A plot, definitely a plot to hurt me, I’m sure of it. You didn’t even have to be cruel, Maude, you didn’t even have to invite those horrible women, they’d have been there anyway, obviously they were determined to humiliate me, make a mockery of my whole contribution. I see it now.”
“Awesome.”
“Exactly. People are so jealous of leadership, trying to destroy my faith in George, have me believe he carries on with trash like that, trying to revenge some old grudge just because that spineless McAlpine knocked Bea up and took a walk… What? twenty, forty years ago? As if anybody cared. And that Paul… I don’t know, he’s just a guard at the Gallery… He damned well won’t be anymore, if I’ve got anything to say!”
The thought that she would be unlikely to have any say, indeed, would most likely be asked to resign, gave her a clue, “Of course! It’s a revolution! He’s one of those types who want to turn everything upside down and marry each other and have benefits… Good God! That’s why they got poor Martin so drunk, he wasn’t in on it after all. He was just falling down drunk and rude, not like him at all. They were probably planning to kidnap him, some sort of statement, you know, and do who knows what filthy things to him and bomb the bank and shoot everybody down in cold blood… It doesn’t bear thinking, poor Madge, maybe now she’ll be glad to know I put a stop to that before they started mailing his ears and asking for money.
“You know, Maude, I expect I saved hundreds of lives, important lives, now I think of it. And you too, of course, you were a help, slipping me that little cheese knife right under the terrorists noses. Yes, I’m not surprised you’re choking, I’m astonished myself, now I realize the danger I was in. It’s a wonder we all didn’t go down in a hail of bullets.”
“Amazing.”
“Yes. And what thanks did I get? George beat me.” Elizabeth bit down hard and nodded her chin, righteousness restored.
Maude couldn’t help but be proud of her sister’s virtuosity of repression, revision, and rationalization. The pure hogwash that muddied Elizabeth’s stream of reality had always gotten to Maude’s affectionate heart. And stuck her with the ungrateful task of reinforcing the truth, “Well, you certainly made a damned fool display of yourself last night. That’s it for awhile, I’m afraid, best you put yourself on hold before they do it for you. Maybe if you’d invited the Queen and knocked her hat off and stomped it and pulled her hair and slapped her, maybe you might be in worse trouble, but not much. You could have killed somebody, you know.”
“Maude, I liked it.”
“What?” Maude’s head snapped up from her hand and she glowered at her sister, “You’re sick, Lizzie! You can’t get away with murder and mayhem, no matter who the hell you think you are. You’re round the bend, girl, you can’t be going through the change again, you’ve got a dose of Alzheimer’s, or something. Old Alice said it’s in the family, the MacKenzie side. She said Mother’d have been mad as old Bill King, if she’d lived past you. That’s what it is. Does George know?”
“George spanked me. And I liked it.” A clearing sniff restored her to her perch on the edge of the couch and Elizabeth re-crossed her legs, both feet on the floor.
“Oh.” Staring hard at her sister, Maude was quite sure she didn’t care to hear this. Losing sharpness a little at the edges, as she did herself, a scarf on her tea kettle, inexplicable fights with cabbies, that sort of thing wasn’t so bad, didn’t automatically bring the white-coats with the back-to-front jacket, there was a bit more understanding in the world today. Stress was what it was, apparently, and aging. But losing it and liking it? Dear God, the possibilities!
If Elizabeth had suddenly discovered, at a time when most of the leaves were off the autumn of her years, discovered that she liked being punished for her bad behaviour, well, then the world was no longer safe, life more than ever not worth getting up for. For Elizabeth had been born not only backwards, but with a big curl right in the middle of her forehead, and when she was bad… God help us! But then again, what if she meant that she liked… “D’ you mean..?”
Grinning sheepishly, Elizabeth felt the heat rise to her hairline in a dizzy rush and she mumbled into her fingers fiddling at her lips, “Sexy, yes. I felt… I’m not sure… Maybe I… For the first time it… I’m not sure…”
“Gawd!” Maude threw herself back in her chair, “I don’t want to know this. I don’t want to talk about this. I don’t want to think about it. Just when you think it can’t get worse… Go home, Lizzie.” She hid behind her hands.
No matter what Harry had tried to encourage his cronies to think, that he’d had to keep a lascivious Maude locked up at home to protect his private pleasure, she certainly hadn’t lived the life of any courtesan. Harry came first when it came to sex and that’s all there was to it. But Maude had learned to take her own pleasure when she needed and so she wasn’t strange to the erotic, but ardour having cooled, she’d just really rather not have this conversation, not now, not with her little sister, not ever.
Should’ve stayed in bed, should not have answered the door, should’ve pulled the blanket over my face and faded away. She’s going to drag you into the smelly parts of her life, if you let her. I won’t. I can’t. I don’t want to. I’ve managed to keep her at bay all these years, now’s not the time to go down. I don’t want to know she’s just discovered the orgasm, if that’s what she’s on about. George gets a little rough, finally, the man must have more self-control than God, he snaps at last, slaps her ass and she gets off like… “I don’t want to think about it, I don’t want to hear about it, I don’t want to know about your sex life, past, present, or future. Call a hot-line, don’t tell me. If you’ve decided to become a motorcycle moll, discuss it with anybody else you like, I won’t care. Use my name, blame me, whatever, just leave me in peace. Please, Elizabeth, find a group.” The chiming of the doorbell shocked Maude to her feet, eager for any interruption.

“We must have a taxi, it is all uphill and I have danced too much and we should arrive with our winds, we will need our winds, my Katya, you will see.” Bena phoned for a car while Katya dressed, pulling on the skirt and sweaters she’d left in a heap around dawn, unwilling to ask, or even to think about Bena dancing.
With a foot on the doorsill and patting the roof, Bena looked up from the cab to the sky, “When I lived in Paris, the air always it was sweet.” She sipped a long breath and wagged her nose like a bee to a flower.
Katya took a sharp sip of air and wagged her head in disbelief at the mysterious chronology of Bena’s past, ever in flux, requiring constant reassessment, adjustments of personnel, of place, of geological formation. As the bones and the shards surfaced, the scale of her passage had come to resemble history itself. “When was that, Bena?” She shoved her in and followed, slammed the door and instructed the driver.
“Aach, the spring time, of course, my Katya, but in all seasons, truly I remember the sweet Paris air. Sometimes too sweet, but…” She spread her hands in tolerance, “…the drains.”
“I mean, when, what year, what era?” Katya had once calculated that if Bena had truly been all of the places, seen all of the things, known all of the people she said she had, she would have to have been born some time before the Flood. Avoiding provenance like a wily dealer, she offered herself as found treasure.
“I was a teacher of the French tongue, my Katya.”
“WHAT?”
“Not all of us had lived in society and knew the French. Certainly we needed a civilized tongue, it makes it easier to buy bread. Having the tongue makes it easier to buy anything from a Parisian, always they insist on painting the lily and making you wait while it dries. They dye even their flower blooms, my Katya, in buckets of red water stand the daffodils to blush and bleed. Sauciers are chevaliers. Paris has a long memory that serves it very well. We were just exotic enough for them to overlook our shabbiness, to give us not credit, but belief. We were arrogant and they adored us. Will we sit in the kitchen at Maude Matthew’s house, Katya? Or will we be polite and sinking into chairs too low and worrying about getting out of them again with saucers under our cups?”
“We sat in the kitchen when I was there yesterday. Yesterday… oh, Bena…” Touching a hand to her breast, Katya clutched at the hanging strap in the back of the cab, “I can’t take this pace.”
“Aach, my Katya, it is just that you are in this little place, you will be better when we are there. Hah! And we are there, are we not? Stop this car! Here, it is my celebration.” And Bena had reached the porch and the doorbell by the time a shocked Katya had finished paying the driver from a fistful of bills that Bena, Bena? had thrust at her.
Hurrying up the walk, Katya was vaguely aware of the car parked in the strip of drive on the far side of Maude’s patch of lawn. Something familiar… expensive… hadn’t she seen..? “Don’t lean on the bell, Bena, give her time. There’s a car, she may have company, it might be the doctor, it could be…” and as the door was yanked open by a grinning Maude, “It’s the sister, that car, it’s her, it’s the wife!”
“What about next Sunday?” Tillie stood with her stick in the gravel of the drive saying goodbye to her daughter through the car window which would no longer wind up. Bea had tried tentative turns on the handle, but the gear was gone, the teeth cracked and crushed from old age, and the futility weighed on her with the burden of a crumbling world and a crumbling body and the fuss and the expense and the rapid ebbing of faith in anything.
And here was her mother, her batty, scatty, senile old bitch of a mother trying to add herself to the load. Bea pretended ignorance with a throw-away tone, “I’ll call you in the afternoon, when the rates are still down.” And she reached to crank the ignition.
“Don’t be cute,” Tillie saw the hand reach to the keys and thumped her stick against the door skirt, “You know what I’m talking about, none of your sneak, girl. Isn’t there an Institute meeting Wednesday? What’re we doing for the Fowl Supper? When are you picking me up? You do your green wobbler and I’ll do my squares.” There was only one answer Tillie didn’t know and an edge of worry inspired her to protect it with easy confirmation. Bea’s lime green cottage cheese aspic was as automatic as Tillie’s oatmeal and date squares when called upon to feed Strawbridge church-goers and strangers, as automatic as an Institute meeting in the middle of the week before a church supper. “Of course, the Lettie Girls’ll be doing the pickle plates.”
“Yes, Mother.” Yes Mother. Yes Mother. Yes, yes, yes! Bea hated herself for the easy aquiescence, for what seemed a groveling, lick spittle, spineless abdication of her own need for calm and solitary peace, for a singularity beyond reach of dry old clutching hands, bony and translucent in their claw-like grip on the walking stick inches from her nose. She yanked one more savage crank on the handle and with a gritty crunch, the window slipped the last inch below the frame. “Okay. I’ll come for you Saturday. You be ready for once and we can get back before dark. Bake on Friday. Make sure you don’t forget your squares in the oven. I’ll phone.”
Katherine Bailey had had as much as she could take, certainly as much as she was going to take, she was fed up to the teeth with humiliation and… and… just plain bullshit! Enough already! Whatever it was, greed, envy, hate, just plain pig-headed stupidity, she’d had enough. In one night she’d lost her man and lost her future and she was so mad she couldn’t even cry. Why? Christ, I don’t even know how! That bitch Preston, who hates my mother, where the hell’d she come from? And who stole my husband? Bastard says it’s just me. Yah, sure. That friend of his, whatsername, Jane, the gynecologist__ and isn’t that pathetic, made for tv, the stirrup queen steals your man__ I know it’s her. Bitch. I know her. Shops for men. Lives in her shower. She’s so perky! Stupid, dumbass, wait till he finds out she hasn’t heard a word he’s said.
She’d pack a frequent change of clothes, one or two momentos, a can of beans and a case of wine, slam the door on this terminally adolescent culture and go pitch a tent up somewhere beyond cottage country. She’d need bug dope and a corkscrew. Have the oil checked. She didn’t own a tent, but she had credit cards. She’d always thought she’d like housekeeping cabins, they looked cozy on the side of the road.
Write down wooden matches, coffee, wine, red and white, vodka, bottle of Jack, eggs, a decent pillow, maybe the eiderdown, bug dope, Martin, a nice piece of cheddar… I’ll take Martin. Why? Make him bring the vodka, a couple nice sirloins, he can cook. He’s probably not even conscious yet. Oh, he’ll be conscious, he’ll have figured out by now how last night’s entirely my fault. I’m not going to talk about it. He will. I’ll tape his mouth shut. Lose the little bastard in the bush, if I have to. Why not? I hope he’s got such a hangover his head falls off. She reached for the phone.
Martin Knight was soaking his crystal candlesticks when the phone began to ring. He squinted at his watch hanging from a cupboard knob, one o’clock, and adjusted the taps. His head felt like a belfry by the time the phone gagged in the middle of the eleventh ring. There were twelve candlesticks, six pair in graded heights, and Martin cleaned them two by two, addressing them by name as he set them to drip on a line of paper towels laid on the countertop. Arnie and Sly were fourteen inches, his own brothers were four. By the time the sink was drained and scrubbed, the telephone had taken to screaming a dozen rings at a time. He made himself a hair of the dog from a heel of vodka and some wizened peel. The phone rang and he picked it up.
“Get some sirloins, maybe a couple good rib-eyes. And dress warm, forget silk anythings. Wool. Something for breakfasts would be fun. Can you get no-fat sausages? Somewhere, I bet, if you look. Blue jeans only. But not bacon! Unless it’s that really lean pea-meal. We shouldn’t, though. They’ve got it at DeVoors. You’re near. And for godsake don’t wear that eau de fruitfly, Martin, you’ll get eaten. You’ll go mad and I’ll have to shoot you.”
Martin fingered the phone cord, waiting to respond. He had decided the night before, when the good hemp rope he had used to hang Katherine’s enormous acrylic rockcut up a marble wall at the reception for the Imperial Trust’s grand new foyer was attacked with a cheeseknife, he had decided, having already given in to considerable glasses of consideration and acknowledging to himself that he was in the deep kneebend of responsibility under pressure and way too many little stems of wine, and deciding that he was decided anyway, he had decided that he must for good and all throw up… No! Give up. Resign! No. Well, yes. Give up these pathetic attempts to bring art to the little people, resign his soft job in mattress publicity, descend to the streets and take up a life of__ Propped among the biscuits and the brie, Martin had raised his eyes to Katherine’s canvas of granite sliding down the marble, and as the slide hit the slates with a cannoning boom, had fainted without looking into David Bailey’s arms.
“Hello?” He was sure he was managing the voice of innocence, “Katherine? Is that you?”
“Who the hell d’ you think it is? You haven’t got any friends, of course it’s me. Now go get shopping, we’re driving up to Manooth tomorrow.”
“Like hell we are going anywhere together ever again! You are nothing but trouble. And I don’t wear eau de anything! It’s cologne, very pricey cologne, and it happens to be called…”
“Every bug ever lived calls it a gin and tonic. You’re a cocktail party for flies, Martin, take my word for it. Take long showers and don’t touch the soap. Get whatever you like at DeVoors, just make sure it’s lean. And don’t forget vodka. Get the good Russian stuff, this’s serious escape. I’m getting Jack and the coffee, that’ll get us through campfires and mornings.”
“I am going nowhere with you! Certainly not paddling around some backwoods gene pool. Where the hell’s Manooth? Up in cousin country? This a roots thing, Katherine?”
“Martin, the reason you have no friends is because you’re a real prick. D’ you ever consider that? You always have to curse the apple and poison the princess, don’t you?”
Martin took a very long breath, twice during which he considered hanging up, but she couldn’t have the last word, “I didn’t say I was here for a nice time, Katherine, I’m here for a long time, and I don’t intend to be left for dead in some godforsaken redneck bar in the tight end of the Ottawa valley!”
“Ottawa Valley?” She snorted derision, “It’s not the Ottawa Valley. Meaner than that. Further west.”
“Oh good, cowboys.”
“You wish. Not that far, Indians and the fightin’ Irish, probably some rock farms and bush hippies. If you’re just gonna bitch, forget it, I’ll live without you, I was thinking of leaving you in the bush anyway.”
He let his breath whistle through his teeth and explode with a puff of lips, “I have no friends? Of course you, Maggie Bloody Muggins, Bludgeon in Her Own Time, are no doubt surrounded at this very moment by an entourage of loyal fans, yes? You don’t have friends, Katherine, you have party guests.”
“Fuck off, Martin. Get what I said. I’ll pick you up at noon. Out front, on the dot, I’m not getting out of the car. Gives us lots of time to get up to Manooth and find a place. Might even be time to stop for cocktails. Okay? Y’ only really need a change of socks. Your own blanket and pillow, if you’re fussy. No stuffed animals. Oh, and bring candles.” Katherine thumped the phone down and went to the bathroom to look at her hair.
Either he’d do as she said and be on the sidewalk tomorrow, or he wouldn’t. She really didn’t care. Company would be nice, someone to talk to, but she could likely find a hitch-hiker who’d do as well. Better, actually, Martin might just drive her nuts with his flippy little moods, his sometimes vicious chatter that made her want to duck. She pulled a brush through her hair and wondered why she’d picked Manooth. She wasn’t even sure she’d been there, though she knew where it was, vaguely, a place she’d heard of up beyond Bannock, up towards the Park. It had the sound of being nowhere; she had a general idea of direction, which was important, because maps drove her to distraction; you couldn’t read one unless you stopped and if you stopped you could see where you were, so why would you need a map? Manooth just sounded like strangers, people she’d never set eyes on, which was exactly what she wanted, and maybe a lake or something, a river at least. There had to be some reason for these places to exist.
Somebody said they’re all Irish up there. And Indians. Good. Should be a decent bar. The hairbrush stuck in a tangle. The important thing was, Manooth wasn’t Strawbridge, her mother’s place; they were a long way from each other. Well, maybe not so much as the crow flys, but she didn’t think there were any roads between them. She sniffed herself and decided she was clean enough for shopping, picked up make-up, mirror and bag, went out and arranged herself at the kitchen table.
I’m not calling Bea. I’m not calling David. I’m not thinking about it. Gran’s okay. The day after her career collapsed at her feet, Katherine used balls of Kleenex and an apricot cleanser to wipe her face down to her shoulders. Around her feet, actually, the huge canvas had ripped over the tip of Tillie’s cane, split and coasted down with a fluttering fart around the three of them, her grandmother, her mother and herself. She stroked an astringent cream thickly about her eyes, it tickled and stung and puffed over the lines.
Well, not her entire career, she supposed, she could still paint, after all, still teach – her contract at the school required her return for the January semester, though after that… Who knew how far that knife of Elizabeth Preston’s reached? Tenure was not a word in Katherine’s employment file. Obviously, she couldn’t even keep a husband. And certainly any public career in the big city was sure as hell in the trash can along with that busted canvas. A thin foundation went on smoothly, evenly, with a brush.
I don’t care. I’m fed up, sick of the bullshit, I just want to paint, go away and paint. I don’t care. I’m not phoning. I’ll put a message on the machine. A pencil did for her eyes. Crap! All of the hangings, galleries, dealers, men, assholes, curators, juries, pretentious shit… I’ve had it up to here! She stroked more cream into her throat. It’s always bad food, cheap wine, and money for everybody but me. Stupid, stupid, stupid people, “And where do you get your ideas, Katherine?” She did her lips with a single ripping stroke, threw tubes, jars and brushes into her kit bag, folded the mirror on top, stood from the table, spotted her blue ballcap on top of the fridge, clapped it on with a shove of hair under the elastic back, scooped her purse from a chair on her way through the dining room, remembered and went back for her list, looked to see the stove was off, and didn’t even pause at the hall mirror on her way out the door.

Bossy, bossy, bossy! She’s headed for cow country, it figures. My god that woman’s bossy. But Martin wished Katherine were still on the phone so he could beat her to slamming the receiver. Not cows. She said rocks. Rock farmers. Not really?
He didn’t want to go anywhere. He wanted a dozen new candles and a whole lot of fresh flowers, not boutique beef and gold-plated vodka. Not for her to swill, that’s for sure. I’m not going to be able to afford her idea of fun anymore, now I’ve quit my job. Oh god, have I? I haven’t said so, have I? His memory dripped and his own voice, not quite words, but hard sounds, leaked through, and an over-exposed glimmer of his own finger wagging and stabbing at a face… Whose face? Elizabeth Prest… Oh, sweet fucking Jesus and his mother Mary! I might as well be dead. He yanked his memory shut.
He sat down at a black lacquer table to make a list. His little grandfatherly trust could keep him roofed, the lights on, but it wouldn’t squeeze. She can make do with hamburger and something cheap. There’s Canadian vodka, Alberta, that’s cow country. She wouldn’t know lighter fluid, if she couldn’t see the label. Martin unscrewed his black Mont Blanc and blotted ink on his notepaper. Pig of a woman! Fuck, I hate her guts! I’m not going! Twelve tall candles, the soft cream ones, for me, special. And glads, I’ll get glads. Lots of glads. Sprays. And nobody’ll know if the wine’s not right. I can drink rosé if I want. Fingers plucked absently at his throat. She’s lost David Dear and she can’t make do without a man, so she thinks she can drag me along to do the dirty work, selfish bitch. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt her to discover that every man doesn’t have to be a walking erection to be useful.
Musk. Bugs probably don’t like musk, it must be what they smell like around cows anyway. And I’ll need one of those farmer hankies. Red, or blue? Better get one of each, she’ll want to go out to god knows what kind of barnyard dance, or some hippie hoedown. Boots, I’ll need boots. The yellow cowboy kickers… and a pair of… no, better not. A boots and barefoot weekend. How Audrey Hepburn. She did say weekend, didn’t she? Well, she said just a change of socks, so that’s two days. Okay. Do you trust her? No. She needs me. She sure as hell needs somebody! Take the little stove thing, they mightn’t have fire yet. A hat? No hat. Use the good conditioner. I should take a cap though, might have to wash in a horse trough, I’ll have flat hair. A peak cap, then. No way! She’ll be wearing that filthy blue ballcap and we’ll look like a team. Okay. I can use the Visa at DeVoors.
There had once been a Daimler for the Chairman of the Imperial Trust, but allegiance was attached to portfolios and in the years of southern expansion an American saloon had demanded the job. At the time, remembering his father’s affection for a long blue McLaughlan, George had spoken for a Buick. The car was now dated, although immaculate, since he mostly walked in the city and it was off-limits to Elizabeth. He figured that the rate this global thing was going, all the eggs in one basket, a new Daimler was not far off, but he intended to resist till they came up with a proper blue.
As the car rolled north, George stared out the window and considered his position. He was grateful for having been born into well-founded money, it had assured his place in the long hierarchies while he had learned and proved himself and aged towards a wise and balanced ship of state. He believed he’d not have made it otherwise, that the driveling truisms, the false spiritualism of management corporate-speak would have choked him, or forced him to a spitting spew that would have defrocked and shamed him. He could afford to have no small talk. It wasn’t that he didn’t have an interesting life, it was that he wasn’t supposed to.
Being driven was hard on George, he walked in the city because he liked it, but he also walked because he’d known young that it might well be all the heavy breathing he would get in any day. Walking had kept him from regular vice and more recently from seizing up at the urinal. So, this too-extended sit from the city to the lake, pampered on the ride of the best Fischer carriage, smooth on an old moneyed road to the summer; this sit without hurdles, without a free hang in warm air, or a shriveling chill to flex by nature, if not by fear, this inertia was going to mean the pain of feeling really old when he came to take a leak. He’d need a good clamber over the rocks once he reached the point.
Rolling by Strawbridge, George saw the big letters, black on the white signboard, under the jackpine on the church lawn, and the car was through the neck of granite before his mind read the message of a Fowl Supper, Sunday, All Welcome, and he saw himself standing to the wheel of the old cruiser, bringing her down out of the lake into the river to the bridge, a royal progress to a banquet among forbearing Christians.
Now there’s a position to get myself into. Me a spanker, a man who’s raised his hand to his wife__ lowered, actually__ out of the need to correct her way. Shame. And the trestles’ll be set up in the church hall where Elizabeth went to Sunday School. The turkeys and the pies’ll be whipped up by women who knew her. Maybe I should get myself a tee shirt with ‘I spanked her’ on it. It could sell in Strawbridge. A chuckle escaped as a snort and George saw Clarence’s eyes flick to the mirror, and he was further ashamed.
He often wished he could just roll onto his back with his paws in the air; what a relief it would be to offer his throat, belly and balls with the sure faith of dogs. All the elaborate rituals of men, homages and handshakes, stand-ins for a gutting with claws, all of the rules seemed made forever to be bent, broken, forcing a vigilance for position which George found increasingly exhausting. He’d been courageous in his youth, closing on extinction in his Spitfire and poker, liquor and celibacy, but his youth was past, a story to be told at need and the need grew less as fewer asked until there was no need at all and he was Chairman of the Board. Slumped in the backseat of the Buick, he was well aware that he would feel alive, useful and horny if he were behind the wheel, but certain forms of inertia must be observed and Clarence was too much the kiltie to allow that. Besides, years of walking had thinned George’s confidence in his own road skills.

In the Saturday traffic on the haul home, Bea tried to list in her head the order of steps toward extinction. Why do I have to be orderly? Why can’t I hit the gas and pile into an overpass like other people? Because you weren’t brought up to spontaneity, Beatrice. You never had yourself another man and you never bought a pair of saddle-shoes and you can’t wipe yourself out without tidying the house first. You aren’t television news, Bea, anguish doesn’t count as a respectable disease, no foundation and funds, no annual runs, anguish belongs to the church and psychiatry, and neither approves of suicide for paying clients. You’re a black-edged box in the local paper, once, on a Wednesday. No teddy bear shrine for Beatrice. I’m on my own. You’re on your own.
She could see that her trickiest problem was going to be a sane division of property between her daughter and her mother, neither of whom was much good at even finding a bankbook. Tillie thought you got money by telling the bank you wanted it. Katherine looked at a maturing bond and saw a new pair of boots. It was the most grievous burden of Bea’s life, this unlooked for accumulation of responsibility, the muffling, smothering fog of possession, but she carried it well, having absorbed her father’s Calvinism, and understanding stewardship she took care of what belonged to her, its possession being temporary, according to God’s will and her own good behaviour.
With great care for mirrors and judgement, Bea depressed the indicator stem and waited for the determined ‘plink plink’ and the untrustworthy wink of light on the dash, the supposed assurances that a signal she couldn’t see no matter how she craned over the wheel, actually worked. No matter how I behave, they’ll find something to criticize. They won’t like anything I’ve got to bury me in. The habit of arm signals had lasted long after lights became standard equipment, and Bea had given them up reluctantly to the new fashion, greatly admiring the persistent old men who wound down windows in January sleet to shove out an arm and point. Just because you can never be too sure. As it was she didn’t trust what she couldn’t see. Surely I won’t have to listen to them once I’m dead. With no faith whatsoever, Bea shoved an arm through the empty side window, nosed into the passing lane and overtook a cruising tow truck.
At the Landing, George rested a moment to gather his legs and to tell Clarence to please call in to Darla for instruction when he got back, thanked him for the ride and let himself out of the car with his bag. Collecting his keys from the marina office, he was forced to endure the bonhomie of a man he didn’t like in the presence of a woman he pitied, until he chose to see a salute in a hand that was raised for emphasis, returned it smartly and escaped to command the jetty. Dumping his bag into a battered dinghy, he handled ropes and throttle with release and seamless pull and the old Crestliner rose and purled out on the water and lay down for the end of the lake.
When Bea pulled off the highway at the bridge, she noted that the letter board on the church lawn already announced the Fowl Supper and she thought that was nice, good to see Reverend Ross on his toes, and then realized that the sign said only, Sunday, All Welcome. Didn’t it? Yes. Tomorrow’s Sunday, but the Supper is next Sunday, which everyone knows, except for the people driving by, people who don’t live here, the people the darned sign’s for! Phone the manse and warn Anna.
“Tell him he’d better add ‘next’ to the sign, in front of Sunday, or you’re liable to have a porchful of hungry people tomorrow night,” Knowing that Anna’s loaves and fishes were salmon-salad triangles with the crusts off, “And they won’t be happy. Better yet, tell him to put the date, too, people might think it’s been up a week already. Not much else open this late, the Carousel looked closed-up when I came by, there’ll be cold city people looking for a hot dinner and some atmosphere, and they’ll be cross when you don’t have it, and then they won’t come back when we want them to, and we’ll be left with empty places at the tables and the church can’t afford that. Have you remembered the ice-cream? Call the Dairy, Anna. And remember, Wednesday at Helen’s. Now don’t forget, you tell him to scoot right out and fix that sign first thing, or we could end up in an awful stew.”
Easing over the massive shelving, George putted the dingy back the shoreline into the shallow cove where the rock almost pinched the point into an island. Light walking on the rippling wash bent and bounced sparkling and shadowing up the granite spine, and his flesh shrank from the sight of Elizabeth at the top of the rock slicing her arm through the air. He blinked, and a scrag of cedar waved again with light. Careful to breath from his belly, George pulled a thick sweater from his bag and slipped it on, he tipped the motor, slid cushions and lay down in the bottom, and concentrating on feeling direction, allowed himself to melt into the cradling roll. He dozed in the flickering sunlight, opened his eyes to check the drift, and dozed again. And when his bones began to chill, he came out of his nap determined, though he didn’t know what for, and he took the dingy back around the point to dock and go ashore.
“Yes, dear Katya, it is true, my mother was a countess.” Bena had entered into Maude’s house in her smoothest hackney glide, knees flashing, her hand extended to accept and bestow the pleasure of meeting, and swiftly passing, with a wink for her hostess, to the other unexpected guest, the wife of her friend George, she had given her hand and said, “Elizabeth Preston, you and I, we must be friends. If we fight again, they will turn us out.”
Releasing hold, Bena swept the room with an interested turn. Each window was hung with a great bosc swag of slick fabric in the upper sash, old enameled venetians in the lower, lending a green and pear-shaped light to the room. One could see only past the shoulders of things. Bena had no intention of being overlooked and the colour of her hair, she knew, was acid in this light. She offered her hands to Maude and Katya gaping in the hallway door, “And such a charming room is kept, I think, for all the very most important visitors, who are happy to sit for a little while on this Lutheran furniture with its so thin cushions. But we are not special, my Katya is an old coffee friend who is pleased at the kitchen table, and I also wish for the coffee without a saucer. So, my dear Maude Matthew, let none of us be over-proud and we will put our elbows up.” And with a toss of the wrists, Bena had commanded them all to the rear.
Elizabeth’s nose had flared and stayed that way, the nostrils wide, flesh white and quivering. Maude kept a hand hovering before her own face to hide repeated grins as she encouraged her guests to pull up chairs and get comfortable at the kitchen table. She busied herself with kettle and coffee as Katya and Bena settled. Aware of her sister’s continuing freeze, she rooted out a cream pitcher from the cupboard, thrust it into Elizabeth’s hands and nudged her toward the refrigerator, “Just milk, not cream, but there’s lots. I had to go down to the corner first thing I got up, my cupboards are unbelievably bare, must do something about it. If I’d known you were coming, I’d have bought a cake. Oh, maybe…” Maude slid open a drawer and poked a finger at some mis-shapen biscuits, “Nope, hockey pucks. Fill ‘er up, Lizzie.”
Having accepted the small blue and white pitcher into a palm still shocked from Bena’s grip, Elizabeth’s numbness took a moment to recognize the delicate old willow piece which she knew, as she cupped her other hand for safety’s sake, belonged to… “The sugar bowl, I suppose that’s long gone? You’ve no sense of things. Mother’s Crown Derby, I don’t know why you should have gotten it. All crammed into the back of a kitchen cupboard like…” she trailed to a murmur during a close examination, “…mmm, looks whole, a miracle, filthy, give it a wash, no, I will.” She made for the sink, “So, the bowl’s gone. Wasn’t there a tray, a little one for the two pieces? I might as well have this if you’re not going to use it, at least I’d appreciate it and not bury it in…”
“Shut up, Lizzie, I am using it. Just give it a rinse and fill it with milk and put it on the table with this!” Maude didn’t bother to suppress a smirk as she opened another cupboard and presented the pitcher’s mate half full of sugar cubes. “There was never a tray, you’re thinking of the lemon plate, candy dish, whatever it was, and I haven’t a clue, lost track of it years ago. If you’d moved as many times as I have, Sister dear, you wouldn’t be so attached to things, especially things you never even use. Milk, Lizzie.” Steering her sister to the refrigerator, Maude turned her attention to Katya and Bena, “What kind of stuff do you get stuck with? What do Finns inherit, Katya?”
“Felt boots and fish recipes,” Bena’s attention was fastened on Elizabeth, but she could spare a thought to general conversation.
Startled, Katya raised an eyebrow to examine the festooning of chains, pendants and beads that graced Bena’s breast, she reached to wag a finger at the clusters of bracelets choking her wrists, “And you, Bena, anything you couldn’t wear?” She glanced up with a grin to Maude by the stove, “A couple of peasants? Twenty miles of standing wheat? Can Hungarian horses be inherited, or are they expected to commit sati like Indian widows?”
A teasing Katya was one thing, grinning complicity with this new friend Maude was another, but the beady black-eyed stare over top of the refrigerator door was too much; how swiftly laughter turned to cruelty had been broken into Bena’s bones. She saw a flash of rifle butts and uniforms and had a need to stand and wheel, to be quickly out and elsewhere. But the kitchen held her, as kitchens always had, with a memory of rising bread, heat and her grandmother’s hair, and she feared that she could lose her Katya here if she rode herself away. She must offer something, so she told them that her mother was, had been, a countess.
“Not a rich one, not even a charming one, but she was a countess and my father wanted one of those. You shake your head with disbelief, my Katya, thinking that the ethnic, the relentless ethnic, so you would say, is telling a German fairy tale to make a proud name for herself in this Canada still wet behind the ears. But it was so, a countess.” Bena had held herself erect and hieratic, but now relaxed and laid her arms upon the kitchen table.
“It is no longer so, there is nothing now to be countess of, the house is gone and even the fields are no longer fields, but raped dead earth salted with the filth of making steel. A whole river once carried my mother’s name, her father’s name. It flows in a different country now, in a different language, with someone else’s name.”
The eyes above the open refrigerator still stared, but hostility had dimmed to curiosity and when Maude, turning a sympathetic smile from Bena, admonished her sister’s waste with a look and a wave of the hand, Elizabeth found the milk and didn’t slam the door. Katya, however, trembled and shook and though her lips were sealed, she leaked tears. Bena was not amused, “There is no future in regret, Katya, but my mother could command more than a curtsy and there are some things, my friend, I could wish that had not changed!”
“Sorry!” One quick squeak was the best Katya could do before she burst into bawling laughter.
To hide a snuffling giggle, Maude fussed over the coffee, lost count of spoonsful, inhaled some finer grind and sneezed into sputtering heh hehs, which Elizabeth found entirely unattractive, “The two of you are completely inappropriate! The poor woman’s a victim of… Well, I’m not sure just who, exactly, but she’s lost a great deal, had a dreadful come-down. A countess, it’s all gone, d’ you see? The what d’ y’ callums, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. The Russians, or the Muslims, maybe. It wouldn’t be the Blacks over there in… Where? Bena?”
“Magyar, Elizabeth.” Bena lobbed a soft one.
“Oh,” It was one of those words Elizabeth had never quite gotten the meaning of, “…and that would be…” though she had made a memory hook that swung her over to a set of, perhaps, decent people with difficult names and an annual ball, who dressed rather too… too fast… food… hungry… “Hungary! And that would make you a…” Elizabeth waved both hands and the milk, “If they’re all gone over there, dead, you know, perhaps you’re a princess.”
Hoots of fresh laughter greeted Elizabeth’s leap. Katya was astonished once more by Bena’s dog-eared biography. Inside of an hour, she’s gone from professing French in Paris, to a fat county in Mittel-Europa, no, a thin county, and a dead one at that. How very tidy, names changed to protect the imagination. Ah, sweet Bena, such lovely arrogance, it really doesn’t matter if the truth comes before the fact, or after. And Katya settled into intermittent fits of giggles.
Maude figured Bena to be more than capable of handling hecklers. If she can glad-hand Elizabeth after last night’s performance__ I seem to remember old, gypsy, and tramp being words out of Lizzie’s mouth__ I doubt she’s likely to be put off her feed even by a couple of ninnies like Katya and me. But Elizabeth… greedy, gullible, she’d bid on a knocked-down aristocrat and stiff the waiter. A displaced person’s a DP, but the properly-born, displaced by what d’ y’ callums, now that could be a dinner party.
“You know, all of Lizzie’s dolls had to be princesses,” Maude spoke into coffee steam, “Started with the one she stole from me. It had to be a princess so she could rescue it from my evil clutches. She likes to deal at the princess level because she thinks it excuses her greedy, arrogant little heart, thinks noblesse oblige means free parking.” Holding a steady stream from the kettle, Maude swung her head for a look down the counter at her sister who was snatching the ears off the milk carton, “Am I right, Lizzie?”
The cruelty. Elizabeth squeezed a hot tear from an eye to plop into the milk’s shaky stream filling the shell-thin vessel cupped in a hand that urged a crushing squeeze, a shattering blue snap and flood of white. You know just where to sink the blade, don’t you, Sister? Years at it, my whole life at it, and there’s no getting you back because you don’t care about anything and you try to drive me mad, but I won’t go.
“Well, there we are,” Having managed with mechanical fingers to restore milk and pitcher to the counter, Elizabeth brushed her cheeks with fingertips, “There you go once again proving you don’t have the sensitivity God gave a lout. You’re dreadful, pedestrian…” Furious, she yanked and slapped the milk back into the fridge, and muttered in the slamming of the door, “No wonder Harry threw you out.”
“What?” Maude slopped water and had to put the kettle down, she was sure she’d heard that. “Harry what?”
Elizabeth was trapped, as she knew she’d be, but it was Maude who was forcing her to say these things, “I said, that you’re so cruel and selfish that it’s no wonder Harry didn’t want to live with you anymore.”
“No you didn’t.” Maude left the filter to drain and faced her sister, “You didn’t say that at all, you said he threw me out. Yes? Wrong. You know darned well I walked out. I was tired of being a wife. I never loved Harry, never pretended, took him on as a convenience, thought it’d give me a place to be, bookshelves and comfortable chairs. And Harry, he loved my safe-deposit box. The man had black ink in his veins in case he bled on a balance sheet. Jesus!” And Maude blew out a bellyful of disgust. “My crime, Sister dear, was making a dumb choice, a lazy choice, and I paid for it with darned near a life sentence of boredom. You, on the other hand, love every bit of the clap-trap you’re saddled with, and miracle of miracles, you’ve got a husband who seems to care enough about you to try to make you behave. So, don’t bother thinking you can make me feel bad about Harry,” Maude focused her sister with a lift of the head, “Just because George finally spanked your bottom.”
Elizabeth was stalking to the door when Bena swept wide an armful of bangles to stop and touch fingers to her wrist. Bena knew where the pain was and held it gently by the pulse, clearing her mind of the sight of George’s hand slapping, slapping, slapping this round haunch, this grey-clad haunch, this haunch by her shoulder__ Clearing that and rocking softly on her thigh bones, she coaxed her own black cone of pain into sympathy with the thundering hooves of Elizabeth’s heart.
My god, sisters , these two’d eat you alive, if you let them. Katya shivered a goose from her grave and wriggled a bit more comfortably onto her chair, careful to not draw fire. Just when you think they’re going to be nice. Fewer things meaner than girlhood games. And now Bena’s going to jump right in and skip along with them. I might’ve known this would happen. I did know, I said so. “Did you have skipping then, when you were a little countess-in-training, Bena? Did you skip rope in another country, another language, Bena? Double-Dutch, maybe?”
Distracted from lancing Elizabeth’s pain, Bena was stern, “We jumped rope in my country, but it was dangerous. It was not your Carl Larsen, Katya, it was not your pretty pigtails and little red boots. Who held the rope, that was important.” Feeling the blood ebb from Elizabeth’s wrist in her fingers, she let go, folded her hands in her lap and offered what she had, “I could be the countess. If I wanted.”
Men on horseback, sabres dangling, difficult names, but decent people, I think. Perhaps. Dressy, anyway. Elizabeth’s head rose to a firmer rein. Sabres slapping, a countess, even possibly a princess, Anastasia, foreign, ethnic, european, moldy old manors, moldy manners, cream cakes… Would she…? “Are you musical, Bena? Do you know any… you know… what d’ y’ callums… men with baton things…” Catching herself making a measure with her hands, Elizabeth bloomed a hot wet slick of shame and felt it melt cold and dry on the furnace of her skin, “You know, men with, uh… Orchestras! Yes, orchestras. Conductors! Yes.” and her hands escaped the sensuous measure in a sweep of relief.
She is mad, Bena thought, mad with always having her way. Whatever she has wanted, she has taken. Mad with possession, mad with position. Ferocious to rule, she sees only jackals in her green lust, and swipes her claws. Her madness has brought her to destruction, malicious and damning, and for this crazy cruelty her man has beaten her. Spanked, her sister says, which would be the way with George, not vicious, smiling to see pain, but driven to correction. He means to keep her. I will be useful, “Yes, yes, Elizabeth Preston, yes!” Swanning with a bounce of girlish gaiety and grasping once again the wrist she had released, Bena clapped hands with Elizabeth and said, “I know a Pole, a great artist of the orchestra with his baton, who…”
“Not that wing nut, Ziski, for godsake, Bena? Not that broken down…”
“Katya, my dear Katya, you have not, I think, the knowledge of the music, or the taste to judge these things and…”
“…soak.”
“Soaked in the very finest European classical music, my Katya. A maestro who has lifted his baton in La Scala, a small program, an emergency, but still, La Scala. And very many of the cities of Poland and other capitals,” Bena bent a look on her old friend that told her to keep peace, “In Paris I knew him. He came to me to learn to speak. I taught him useful forms of flattery, si vous voulez, and took him to buy clothes. To Paris, tout les autres, are badly dressed monkeys, if he wished to raise a stick to the French, he must look a splendid ape. Fortunately for sentiment, Poland was once a fashion for second sons of France, and since their manners hide their condescensions only from themselves, he found it quite easy to play on their conceits and their pianos and so made something of himself.
“But he could not go home and he needed to believe in words of affection, and the French keep their language for themselves, so he came here, to Canada, to Ontario, to the Polish people up there in their high lands before the wilderness, and he makes music when he can.” Having set the bait, Bena again clapped the hands still held in hers, “For what, Elizabeth Preston, do you wish to know a conductor?”
“To catch the train to the bin!” Laconic, disgusted, Maude plunked the coffee pot in front of Katya, “Would you pour please, Katya,” She collected mugs, spoons, the sugar and the milk from the counter edge and delivered each to the table with a rolling of eyes and a wagging of head at her sister, “Look at her, happy as if she’s in her right mind.”
And indeed, Elizabeth was glowing with the excitement of so soon finding the answer to her new stunt. A conductor, a maestro! and perhaps not too expensive after all. To hell with pictures! she said to herself, and to the others, “To create a truly lovely musical experience for the appreciation of those of us who…” she searched for reason, “…who appreciate the fine…”
“Snobs. Have a cup of coffee, Bena. If you let go of her, maybe she’ll float off and save us the bother of having her put down. I’d leave her out in a snowdrift, but she won’t stay.” Maude placed spoons, “You’re batty, Dear. Had a little tanty last night and spoiled your own picture party, didn’t you? And now your picture party friends aren’t going to let you play anymore, so you’re going to muscle in on the music game. Am I right? Little musicales for a hundred, perhaps? Strings in the sunporch? Piccolos in the parlour? Something like? You’re about to be lynched by the painting trade, so now you want to ride herd on a bunch of cellos, eh. See? I know you, Lizzie, right from one end of the schoolyard to the other looking for a game to boss. And you always want to be in at the top of the game, no line-ups for Lizzie, no sinkful of dishes, either. You’re a ruthless, self-regarding tyrant, Sister dear, one real hell of a princess.”
“Oh, a queen!” Proclaimed Bena with all the appearance of sincerity, “The qualities of a queen, I am sure of it.” Maude’s upper plate dropped with a click and Katya aimed coffee into mugs with full attention.
The intrigue surrounding royals had always made Elizabeth nervous, as she was never absolutely positive she knew which way was up and someone was always trying to move the ladder. But being royal, of course, meant that the intrigue was constant and eternal and therefore the inability to get it straight was understandably just one of those things… those Latin tag things. She was sure there was one of those quid something, or quo sayings for summing up the problem, an old one, obviously if they said it in Latin, so the kind of thing that proved what she’d known all along, “You’re not very nice, Maude. It’s obviously not my fault. I guess I’m just…” She flicked a glance at each of them and sighed forgivingly, “…just that much more sensitive than the rest of you.”
The stirring of spoons hammered the silence as Maude and Katya and Bena considered responses. Oddly coincidental, Bena and Maude were both thinking of pinching thumb and forefinger through the circle of gold at Elizabeth’s throat and drawing her body through the hoop. Bena drew her right through, saving the head for last. Maude stopped halfway, leaving her sister for the time being folded like a napkin in a ring. Katya thought about sharks. The three of them eyed each other, looking for signs of weakness, hurt feelings, murderous intent, but all three faces remained impassive, perhaps a bit stunned, the eyes mild and thoughtful, till Maude asked, “This Ziski, this conductor, you say he’s somewhere north?” And in a softer voice, head lowered over her mug, “Broken down soak. Is there any point in this?”
There I go, calling people names again, Katya thought, and I hardly know the man. But he is a soak, or he was, so he can be again. I suppose he doesn’t have to be, “I honestly don’t know him well enough to know what he’s capable of.” Though one way or another, I think we can depend on Wit Ziski stripping any excess sensitivity from the likes of Elizabeth Preston.
“He has genius,” Bena flew her fingers to the world, “So, once in a while he loses faith and he drowns a little bit the pain,” This silly woman thinks her husband is a drunken, lustful beast. Hah! Love pats and sober as judges is what she knows. I will feed her to Maestro Witold Ziski. Bena arched and turned to see Elizabeth, “But give to him the inspiration of his music, be to him a Muse, divine, and he will clasp his heart and raise his stick…” Bangles clashed like cymbals as Bena shaped the air, “…and you will be amazed!”
Bea woke from a doze on her couch, irritable and unrested. She felt short-changed when sleep failed to knit up its share of raveled care and she had a crick in her neck. She toasted the crusts of a loaf and with a pot of tea sat herself at the dining table where she could watch the day fade on the river at the end of her yard. I can’t stand being alone anymore. I can’t take it. You’ve been alone forever, you’re just worn out, you’ll get over it. No. You will. And the whole mess with Katherine’s painting and Liz Preston, that’s got you down. That isn’t it. Sure it is, you’ll get over it. No! I don’t care, that’s not it! I don’t want to be alone. I’m tired of being alone. Get used to it, now’s hardly the time to complain, you’ve got years to… Yes. And I don’t want years.
With a deep sigh and aching bones, she rose from the table, crossed through the livingroom and stooped to a cupboard beneath bookshelves next the fireplace. From behind stacked boxes of board games and puzzles, she slid a battered gray tacklebox and straightening with a grunt carried it back to the table. Despite its hiding place and the serious steel lock through its hasp, the box held nothing precious, only copies and lists of what was securely deposited with two banks and a lawyer. Bea was aware that perhaps her precaution went a bit far, after all, who was there to see her papers tossed in a desk drawer, even dumped in a heap among withered oranges in a fruitbowl on the sideboard like some people she could name. Still, both her mother and her daughter thought nothing of fingering through anyone’s privacy if it came upon their attention in the ordinary way of idling about opening drawers and poking into cupboards, though she didn’t think either of them patient enough to fiddle open a four number combination.
She broke her stare with the lock and poured herself another cup of tea. She knew the entire contents of the box by heart, could quote codicils, describe scrolled edges on facsimile certificates. There wasn’t a lot of point in spinning the combination, but she must do it anyway, for the ritual. She swallowed tea. And to remember the numbers. She hadn’t yet relinquished control, every statement passed before her eye, every cheque under her hand, nothing was delegated except the annual fiscal review of her figures by an accountant who knew better than to dawdle on her time. She didn’t like doing it; if she liked doing it, she’d have been an accountant, but she had to know the distance to the poorhouse.
Discretion, of course, required that she not be seen to have purchased the big life policy with a bomb strapped to her waist. She wasn’t about to give people the chance to say she’d profited by her own death, by ensuring that her mother stayed off the street and her daughter out of the bin. Or, yes, she thought, the other way about.
Perhaps it was finally time to give in to them all, the banks, the utilities, the caring funds, the insurers, the government bookies, the shopping channels, all the people who begged for the privilege of automatically dipping into her account whenever they felt the need for a nourishing debit. Let them all get a trotter in the trough, reassuring themselves of her good intentions. Send them each the voided cheque with signature. Fat and able to feed for a month or two post mortem, they mightn’t suspect predetermination, would accept accident as tragedy. I’m damned if I’ll look foolish and have Velma Lettie say so.
Bea had been bookkeeper and then manager of Bateman’s, a department store that had begun life as the village post office and egg-grading station with a general stock of drygoods housed in a cramped one story shop in the business street. When first she went to work after highschool, the edible stock had already been reduced by health regulations to cheap biscuits and chocolates firmly packaged, making space for Cosmetics and Toys. Presently the government built the postal service a new station and Hats got a room of their own, but the candle-ing and packing of eggs still went on in the chilly annex behind, leaking an acrid bite of dirty straw into Men’s Shoes and the back-corner office. Despite the confusion of merchandise, it remained a simple enough operation, with a single till and duplicating sale slips, that Bea’s birthing of Katherine caused only a week’s disruption in the paperwork and she was considerately allowed to have the accounting books at home in the first days of nursing and adjusting the baby to bottled formula.
The house that her new husband had taken in the month before the birth was a clapboard bungalow on a piece of McGee property next to the Hardware with the rent cheap enough that Bea was able to pinch by alone when McAlpine deserted for the Rockies. It was damp and cold beside the river with only a draughty fireplace and a rusted Quebec heater against the winter, and in the yard the skin of soil was too thin, she knew, for more than creeping moss and Indian paintbrush, but white pine roots had found cracks in the rock and a line of old willows draped the water’s edge and Bea with her baby and ledgers found enough moments of relief from the world that she decided she wanted to stay.
Ted McGee, her friend Anna’s brother, was younger, but had already by dint of aggression and a canny head grabbed the wheel of the family’s interests, so that when Bea offered him a mortgage payment equal to the rent, the torch Ted had carried through highschool allied with a precocious recognition that he was going to need all the goodwill he could buy, if he intended to climb his way through politics, softened his grasp and over the objections of his elders, he agreed. He took pleasure in informing his miserly old prick of a grandfather, who’d insulted every citizen he hadn’t bankrupted, that he hadn’t even asked for a downpayment.
When Katherine had more or less accepted the bottle she was given over by day to the unmarried Hoy girl who minded one of her own and the telephone switchboard in the kitchen of her mother’s house and Bea hauled the ledgers back to Bateman’s hen-scented office.
The store was one of three scattered over the county, the last enterprise of a merchant family once proud in Orillia society that had descended to a bored woman past middle age who drank lunch and hoped her managers were honest. When her Strawbridge trusty disappeared with the Christmas receipts and the Ladies’ Wear clerk, she drank her breakfast, called the store staff together and asked how much money she’d lost. Only Bea knew the answer and told her. Miss Bateman went home to lunch and made a decision. If Bea could make the store produce additional profit equal to the loss before the next Christmas season the manager’s job was hers for good. And because they were cursed women in a cruel man’s world, anything over and above the replaced amount would be a bonus she would split with Bea. In fact, to hell with that, she had enough of her own, Bea could have the whole bonus if she’d drop by for a cocktail and stay to talk. Which Bea did, phoning her excuses in to the switchboard.
The following evening Bea had bundled the baby and dragged herself next door to ask Ted for advice. He’d spent the last of the fall out back of the Hardware ripping out the old jetty and the cylinder hand pump that had served to gas a couple dozen fishermen in a season, and in their place had built a broad wharf with a proper service station pump, a slipway and dockshed where she’d found him knocking together benches and shelves to suit a mechanic’s need. “Tourism, Bea, that’s the future. We’ll never get more than dimes out of our own, independent bastards’d rather squeeze a nickle and get the cousin or the in-law to do what needs doin’ for the sake of a beer and the loan of a hand. We gotta sell to the tourists who don’t know the neighbours and don’t know the price of bugger all anyway. We’re just gettin’ a trickle yet, ones who’ve been goin’ up to the lakes over the years still make the run on up to Tier for supplies, but the new road’s comin’, straight as a hard-on, be here in a year. They blast that jeezus rock to Kingdom Come and the trippers’ll be pourin’ through the gap like a run of smelt. Couple of years, they’ll be thick as the flies both sides of the river right up to the lakes. We give ‘em what they need right here and they won’t have to get off their arses the rest of the summer. Tier’ll dry up and blow away. Except we gotta go wet, beat the damned bluenoses and get ourselves a liquor store. You vote wet? Make sure you do, and stick a cracker up every butt you know likes to take a drink, blackmail ‘em if you have to. City people want their booze and we want ‘em comin’ here to get it, spendin’ their money.
“You take that job, Bea, and you cram that store full of every bit of summer tourist crap you can think of, kind of stuff you’d want yourself if you had more money than brains and dick all to do for a livin’. Get some of them Hawaii shirts and big dumb sunhats won’t stay on in a wind and canvas chairs that fold up and swimsuits and fancy sunglasses and suntan oil, maybe even some of these Bermuda shorts they’ve got for men to wear now. That’s what you wanta do, sell ‘em what they don’t even know they want yet. And you get yourself another cash register or two, for chrisake, city people’re in a hurry, they hate waitin’ in a line, and you can turn that piddly-ass five and dime into a goin’ concern. Take my word for it, tourism’s the wave of the future ‘round here.”
“You could be right about all this, Ted, but it won’t do me any good this summer without the road going through till next year. The profit off the regular goods has to roll over to re-stock for next Christmas. Where am I supposed to find this extra money? I don’t see how I can do it. There’s just no cream to be skimmed.”
“That egg operation, that’s your cream. Now listen, Bea, this’s just between you and me and the bedpost, but I’ve been doin’ some thinkin’ about the grocery business. Had my eye on those supermarket operations that’re cleanin’ up down south. It’s what we need up here. You buy your meat and potatoes and your bread and your canned goods and whatever all in one place. Bought myself a piece of the dairy when old Crawford dropped dead last year, just a piece, they can keep the headaches in the family, and I’ve been thinkin’ I need an egg operation. I could take that gradin’ business off Bateman’s and be doin’ you a favour, can’t be worth the trouble and it stinks up the store somethin’ awful. Tell you what, you get the old bat to sell me off that operation, I’d guess it might be worth a bit more than what that asshole stole, and there’s her replacement money and you still got your purchase margin. And if she’s lettin’ you have the extra like you say, I’ll make sure it’s sweet enough to make it worth your while to do the persuadin’. What d’ you say? I’ll move ‘er out of there to a place I’ve got and you can hose down that shed and use ‘er for storage. Come next year, you get that big summer stock in, you’ll need the room. I’ll go you one better, you don’t blow your bonus on high livin’, I’ll show you how to multiply it a few times, no risk to speak of. What do you say? You know, Bea, me and you’d make a pretty good team, eh. You oughta think about that.”
Bea knew that if she had any real sense she should serve McAlpine with papers and marry Ted. He was only four years her juniour, not too shocking even for Strawbridge, and he certainly could out-glare any disapproval from the likes of the Letties, but she’d known him too long and sensed that his glad-handing charm masked an overweening ambition that in time would forget to be kind. So she accepted the advice and his generosity as evidence of friendship and suspected that the whole business was very much to his advantage.
In the course of a long wet spring of weekly lunches, Bea didn’t so much convince Miss Bateman that selling off the egg operation was a practical move, nor even that a new focus on Tourism was the wave of the future, but rather herself was persuaded that women unfortunate enough to be alone in the world had every right to think for themselves, no matter what any man said. “And if this village idiot of yours wants to pay out good money for that stinking egg business, well hell, Honey, lets you and me take him to the cleaners. You ring him up and tell him how much and I’ll go mix us up another manhatten.”
Bea had kept the manager’s job and did very well by Ted’s advice. The tourists came and even he was astonished by the success of his supermarket and found it no burden to offer quick cash to any small merchant who suddenly discovered himself without custom, saving many a one from the humiliation of bankruptcy. The Saturday farmers’ market dwindled and finally died, affording McGee Inc. enough depleted cropland to go into housing in an upscale way, and recognizing the futility of platform politics, Ted satisfied his hunger with maximizing profits and bullying in the backrooms. Miss Bateman’s liver eventually quit in the course of a protracted lunch and the trustees dispersed the residue of her properties, the still solvent Strawbridge store finding a buyer, recently landed, who had the good sense to change nothing while Bea still managed a profit. And when she’d decided she’d had enough, Bateman’s burnt to the ground, liberally insured.
Opening her tackle box, Bea stared at the stack of paper inside, ran a meditative finger over from end to end, less a stroke than a measure, sighed with a deep mixture of relief and boredom and closed the box. She was in no sense wealthy, did not consider herself a rich woman, though she knew herself to be a frugal one, at first of necessity, then out of habit, perhaps by nature, and she had saved carefully in her working years. Even so, it had been Ted McGee’s initial lesson in the investment of what she always thought of as her egg money that had directed her to some very fortunate share purchases which had grown and split and pupped and mutated into sums that never failed to shock her. There was really such a lot on her plate that she could live without fear of hunger on the drippings.
But Bea was possessed too of a moral inheritance, the great sad black dog of responsibility for having, that was perhaps as much kin-memory of pinched highlands, as it was the expected behaviour among a people who believed that they earned what they deserved. Stewart, her father, had told her that pride needed two reins, responsibility and guilt, to keep it out of the ditch, and she had loved her father without question. Her responsibility was her mother and her daughter, her guilt was for having more than she needed, her pride had never bolted. If she wanted the ditch, she’d have to let go, and she couldn’t even allow herself the luxury of a little powder-room under the stairs.
Once inside the house, George approached the cold cookstove with ritual prayer and patience until he got a healthy fire up, then promethean elation subsiding into an old scout knowing how to put a match to kindling, he sat a bottle of scotch to warm on the open oven door and got on with his chores. He switched on the hydro, but having no intention of re-priming the pump, he walked down to dip a pail in the lake. He filled the kettle and set it over the fire. Up the backstairs in the zinc room, he chose a feather tick, blankets and a pillow, carried them down to the kitchen and propped them to warm by the stove. He moved the kettle, filled the firebox with tough dry chunks, knees and elbows of wild cherry, and switched draughts. Fetching a tin mug from the pantry, he filled it with warm scotch and hot water and went up to his bedroom to change.
In his childhood and youth, George had spent whole summers at this house set high above the water on a finger of rock hooking out into the lake. And every year of his adult life, except for the time of the war, even during the years of high career, he had contrived to spend some days of every summer in this place he loved. For the better part of his married life he’d spent the time alone, for Elizabeth preferred cocktails in cabañas at five-star hotels and grew bored in a weekend ‘on the rocks’, as she said, though she took pride in possession and didn’t hesitate to mention their summer house in Muskoka when necessary.
It was not the oldest summer house on the lake, nor the quaintest, certainly not the biggest or costliest. George’s grandfather had spied the hook from a boat in his own youth and bought it, cheap at the back end of the channel. But then he’d gotten busy making money and the fashion in those days was for Town, so that it wasn’t until he’d grown comfortable, owing only gratitude, that he felt the need for a summer house in the peace of the lake and felt no necessity to build more than a reflection of his own satisfaction. The cedar gables, porches, planking and platerails, coloured with light, looked on the outside like a tailored morel and the inside was as smooth and dry as a wooden cigar box.
Digging to the bottom of a cedar cupboard, sucking the dry cat smell of the wood into his body, rubbing his forehead along the smooth beveled edge of a drawer, George found his airforce uniform pants, the folds had become creases, the hot wet smell of the war had become cold and feline. He found longjohns and a soft flannel shirt, navy, to go with the airforce blue. He smoothed two pair of thick socks onto his feet so that he could walk without shoes, and tucked the pant cuffs to make plus-fours. Standing to a long mirror to button his braces, he frowned at his own colours fading before the strength of the cloth and in the slim drawer of a dresser he found a white handkerchief, a snowy square of bishop’s lawn to knot at his throat. Better, that brings back the colour. He raised his hands flat, tip to tip in a shelf beneath his chin, “Vraiment! Certainly, certainly it is a Monseigneur! A white collar can get anything it needs from a believer.”
In the passage behind the stairs, a row of pegs and a wall of shelves had collected things in passing: hats of grayed canvas and brittle straw, a hammock without ropes, a dirty long cloth bag sporting drivers and irons with wooden shafts, a rack of mis-matched mallets and chipped balls enough for doubles at croquet, thin green badminton nets and tough old birds of india rubber with balding quills, sprung rackets, warped presses and a cricket bat. It was the bat that caught George’s eye and startled a memory. He emptied the tin mug in a thirsty panic, dribbling on his chin, and brushing at it his fingers stroked his cheeks, pulling down dewlaps, remembering.
He remembered the pained yellow grass and the maple green light of the schoolyard and a small George with too much bat swinging, swinging at a ball, swinging at the expectation of a ball, in the general direction of a ball, somewhere in the vicinity of… The ball approaching, swing, passing, swing, scoring. He had supposed that it was the fear of ridicule that blinded him to the path of a ball he was expected to hit, slap, slug, swat from the air. The fear was obvious, wet and cold on his shoulders, the ridicule as frequent as the game.
Pushing the swing door into the kitchen, George was startled by the rush of heat, and crossing to the stove, he tightened the draught, turned the mattress and pillows, and pulling up a wooden stepstool, refilled his mug and sat himself carefully down before the oven door. Just when you think you’re safe, think you’ve softened up the past, whipped old agonies into memory lite… WHAM! a whole new episode of Past flashes up and there you are again looking at snapshots you never knew your eye had shuttered on: the grass, its colour and the height of it, how light fell that day, the shadow of a cloud, of fear, of moments of anguish caught in a lens of perception, blinked upon, developed and filed in the welter of juice and fibrous brain. Memory showing something not forgotten, but something that you never knew you knew.
But when at puberty his vision cleared, he had learned to judge the timing of the pitch, to make a lucky estimate of velocity and wind, spread his shoulders against the sun and swing with his long arms and cut the ball hard and far. The sudden pleasure of his potency forgave his old humiliations and it was his pride, that when he did connect, that ball traveled. To swing out and feel the jar and shudder of connection in his clubbed hands… Oh, that was savage!
He balanced his tin cup on the rim of the oven door, stood, folded the stool and retired it, topped up the kettle from his pail and leaving it to simmer, shoved a thigh of old apple into the embers and reset the draughts. He prodded the tick into a soft heap on the ragrug before the stove, spread blankets, bombed them with the pillow, swallowed a quick nip from the neck of the bottle to guard against chill, and walked a reconnaissance through the ground floor rooms watching for Stukas and latching the doors. Back in camp, he doused the lights, filled his mug, slipped his braces and settled into his tick with the intention of sitting watch to the end of the bottle if necessary, to take thought for Elizabeth, and fell asleep.
SUNDAY
“Are you not sleeping, Beatrice?” Met in the herding surge of the congregation for the doors, Velma Lettie’s weather eye traveled Bea’s Sunday Church outfit from hat to shoes, and having seen them all before, had to settle back again on a smoothness of cheek that surely must be puffiness at Bea’s age.
Snapping a glare to ensure that Vera was in tow, Velma slipped her purse strap to the elbow, aimed hymnal and bible in a firm, two-handed grip and plowed up the aisle, catechizing Bea all the way to the porch, “Mother not well? You were down. It’s a worry. And Katherine? You went all that way! And were you disappointed? Of course not, she’s fine. Still at the Art, is she? And still..? Yes. Still no little ones, though. It must be hard. Though some, no doubt, are best without, if they’ve only been to the altar to satisfy themselves. It may be said better to marry than to burn, but I’ve often thought the Apostle Paul spoke more as a man, than a saint. That’s so, isn’t it, Reverend?”
Through the vestibule, milling with husbands hunting hats, with wives smoothing the seats of coats they’d sat on, with children pouring up from basement classrooms waving God in pastels, all fighting to regroup without raising voices and pass to the porch for a murmur and a handshake with the Reverend, Velma hove to and took a hand from her bible to give to the minister, “A lovely service, Reverend. Rather a poor choice of music in the second hymn, but at least people know the words. Do you think we might suggest to Ginny Whelks that she’d be happier with that new baby down in the nursery? Yes. And did we notice poor Jack Wilson was quite unsteady with the offering plate? I won’t say he smelled of drink, mind you. No.”
A duty done, she shifted guns, “Indeed, a thought-provoking lesson, Reverend, although, as I was just saying to Beatrice, I find the Epistles rather too concerned with the male members… the men of that congregation… Corinthians, yes. Greeks, of course, I suppose that was the problem. And Bea was telling us just now of her problems, her worries. Not sleeping well, you can see. Mother’s not good, you know. No. And she’s been down to visit with Katherine. All that distance to drive and still no sign of a Little Blessing, you see, and I was saying that perhaps there was a Lesson there, which those of us who don’t burn, you understand, have a duty to point out. Helpful, as we’re sent to be.”
“Good morning, Beatrice. Now what lesson would that be, Velma Lettie? Morning, Vera.” The first year of his Strawbridge pastorate, Robert Ross had been terrorized by this bossy, meddlesome old maid, until Anna, his wife and always a local girl herself, had convinced him that the trick was to give Velma Lettie her full name, the way old Albert had done on the rare occasions he had addressed his daughters. It froze her long enough to get something said, “You saw the sign, Bea? Thank you for the warning.”
“Sign? What sign?” The Devil, Velma knew, used sign language. She had always avoided black cats and the deaf, and although she kept familiar with the zodiac on a daily schedule, convinced it was the only safe way to keep ahead of Satan’s doings, she was never sure where she was nowadays, what with this sign business quite out of hand, this silliness over magic crystals, for instance. Not a good solid gypsy ball that you could actually see something in, certainly nothing nice in a pinwheel pattern, just silly chips and chunks, dust-catchers supposed to cure cancer and part the Red Sea. And all this foolish dreaming and meaning and therapy and confronting a black weasel in a mound of new snow had nothing… Velma felt uncomfortably warm, she’d have to speak again to old Fooks about wasting the church’s oil… nothing to do whatsoever with anything! People who dream are no better than they should be, “Sign? What sign?”
“The buffleheads are congregating south of the bridge!” Vera felt called upon to say something. After all, it’s what people expect, a bit of conversation after service, everyone having a word with the minister and something polite with friends, nods for acquaintances; they do it in books. Vera thought it’d be lovely to go home to scads of tea and hot muffins and three different kinds of sandwiches and maybe a nice cake, an angelfood, instead of brown bread and pickles and a half pot, one bag. “Sign of an early winter, the ducks.”
The others let it pass, as they mostly did with Vera. Velma would get her for it later, they knew that, but it was considered safer to ignore Vera for her own sake, she mightn’t get tea at all.
“The letter board, Velma Lettie,” the Reverend indicated the church lawn with a wave of surplice, “I hadn’t made the day of our Supper clear, and Beatrice noticed that we might have been expected to feed the southern hordes tonight, and suggested that I clarify the date of our fête.”
“You should’ve called a committee. I’m always willing to see things done correctly.” Velma clapped her bible with a capable hand.
“Of course, Velma, but we seem to have managed,” Bea was modest, “Reverend Ross added next Sunday’s date, and that should prevent any confusion.”
“Confusion to the enemy, the filthy Sassenach!” Vera’s eyes winked a rapid dozen while she quivered a smile, “Southern hordes, you see, literary allusion, historical, really… Scotland the Brave and…” She would certainly go without tea now.
Straight to her room, Velma thought, the moment we get home. “How fortunate of you to be so… noticing, Beatrice. Although, I do believe that the best of our visitors, our summer-home people, are familiar with our local celebrations, and certainly those of my circle have all taken tickets and can be counted on to know what day it is, old families, people with calendars in their lovely homes, Beatrice.”
Bob Ross had chosen the ministry, in part, for the clothes. He’d once seen himself a bishop, indeed, had indulged himself in a chain of serendipidy that sat him in full fig on the Canturbury throne. But he developed early trouble with whisky and golf, loving the former, hating the latter, an imbalance of passions unfavourable to a political churchman. So, he’d turned his back on the lure of the see for the life of the country parson, and having been posted to the rim of civilization, had found himself watering the vestry wine and went native, marrying Anna McGee of the Strawbridge Hardware McGees. This was in the days before the coming of the Canadian Tire thrust that family into a scramble of rapacity and greed from which it emerged as the ‘Grocery McGees, them bastards’.
He made do for the most part on visiting sherries, and sought comfort in corduroy and tragic sopranos. A good man who tried not to judge what he didn’t understand, he was an intelligent man who had come to believe in instinct, and so adopted a dotty Church of England manner that predated any involvement with guitars. It allowed him a moral tone and enough pedantry to employ the proper parables which were, really, sufficiently instructive and saved him the humiliation of the modern homily. Leaning on the Good Samaritan, he sensibly avoided the Marriage at Cana, deeming notice of compassion more important than of water being wine.
A weaker man would have gone High Church, slipping into cassocks and the naming of saints’ days, at least for the comings and goings of seasons, offering an all-day liturgy to those with a tooth for God. However, Bob Ross enjoyed sitting to his sermons, the thinking and the crafting of them, much more than standing and delivering. The reading, the writing, the choosing of music to frame the service managed, with a measured beat of heart, to dull and make safe the sharp edge of his vision. For he too often saw the world as transparent, vein and sinew, and the urge to blood, to sacrifice, and to read the truth in entrails for the sake of a terminally confused humanity made him thirsty.
Bea considered the Reverend Robert Ross an affable man. His manner was careful, a touch donnish, perhaps, giving him the air of a bachelor cleric soaked in Greek, his household sketchily managed by an adoring plain sister. When in fact he was indolent, given to crosswords and canasta, and married to a nervous plain wife. Bea enjoyed his company because he was a sensible man and not unhandsome.
For his part, Bob Ross trusted Bea McAlpine to never have need to confess any sort of unmanageable sin; she would neither pat him on the knee, nor abet bloody intrigue. She was kind to Anna, his wife, and a dab hand at cards. Once in every month Reverend Ross found reason to forgo Sunday evening service, giving himself peace and preventing high-church addiction in the congregation, and this evening would be particularly celebratory as it was Anna’s fruit cake night.
Pinched at birth, Anna Ross tended to hold her elbows safely cupped in her hands. Asthmatic, and morbid about cats, she lived with mice and a dust cloth. Anna’s single indulgence was an annual preparation of six fruit cakes, twice three, or three twices, no one asked, created with a generosity of sweet nuts and rum and a joyous, heated intensity expressed at no other time of the year.
A bottle of brown sherry had already been ripened into the cheesecloth wombs, tonight was the wrapping of the rum-soaked shrouds. The possibility of a chance at Anna’s bottle, especially if Bea were to drop by, was making the Reverend anxious to be rid of the Letties for fear Bea should maneuver through Velma’s blockade; if she escaped uninvited, there’d be no rum for the sailor. “Vera Lettie, could I call upon your great good nature to slip up to the vestry and just see that Jack Wilson’s stowed the collection properly, snecked the lock on my cupboard, he might’ve muddled the chore, if he’s a bit unwell.” A scrape of guilt for sacrificing a friend’s reputation was salved by a certainty that Velma couldn’t resist supervision of her sister botching a job. And indeed, saluting the assembly good day and issuing commands, Velma stood about and sailed back the aisle, Vera in her wake, to preserve the Church from thieves and secret drinkers.
Bea said she’d be glad to drop by spontaneously around seven, “If we sit in at her kitchen table, maybe we can get Anna away from her cakes long enough to take a hand at the deck, and if she wipes us out, she might be in the mood to grant you a cup of her rum to make us up a bowl of punch.” And there might be a chance for a word of advice, if she could ask it right; she didn’t want to risk her place in consecrated ground, it was already paid for.

The feather tick flat to the rug beneath him, legs tangled in a twist of blankets, George woke only a little stiff in the shoulders. Where the hell… Oh. Why the hell did I sleep here, instead of making up my bed? Never even thought about it, just did. Unhuh, but why? Change is as good as a… Yah, yah, sure. Some kind of punishment? Bed of nails? For what, besides it wasn’t… For beating your wife. I didn’t beat her, I spanked her, and it wasn’t any bed of nails, quite comfortable really, warm. Yes, but… It just seemed natural, okay? What? The spanking , or sleeping on the… Oh, for chrisake, just get up and get on with it.
Wrapping himself in a blanket, he poked up the ashes in the stove, adding kindling and poplar, found coffee and the old tin percolator which he filled and set to boil. At the bottom of the boot box he found a forgotten pair of deerskin moccasins, black and yellow as an old bruise, that stretched to a snug fit on his sock feet. Hitching his blanket into a shawl, he shuffled out the back pantry door for a leak, then into the big woodshed, mindful of porcupines who had a tendency as the year cooled to wander in for a look at the woodpile, and loaded an armful of stovewood. Carrying in the third or fourth load, he noticed that such a lot of wood rather suggested that he hadn’t been thinking about going home. He dropped his shawl and carried two more loads keeping his mind on the damp path under his moccs, cautioning himself not to track mud and to remember to dry his feet at the stove.
Filling his tin mug with boiling black coffee, gently standing one foot at a time on the open oven door, he considered the moment, sipped away a half inch of coffee and added a dollop of scotch. He picked up the blanket, decided against it, and with a squaring of shoulders marched his mug out back past the woodshed along an overgrown trail and up into a thicket of plum masking an old outhouse that only he cared to use. With the door gaping wide, he sat in his thicket, stared out at far water through a tracery of grey twigs and searched himself for understanding.
There was no thought of leaving Elizabeth, of course. Well, he had fled the house for the cottage and he was willing to think about how long he dared stay, now that the wood was in, but leaving, meaning separation or divorce, wasn’t a possible consideration. He had married her on a dare: she had dared to set her cap and offer herself; he had dared to abandon a determined bachelorhood and accept her offer and he had grown a comfortable affection for her unbridled egoism. In fact, I suppose after all these years, he thought, it must be love. Or is it habit?
Without warning, in the split of a moment, George blazed with such fury, such a trembling anger, that he was forced to rest his mug on the wooden seat or spill it into the crotch of the pants between his knees. Suddenly furious with his wife in a way he’d never been, he was at first shocked and then afraid for his own safety. Dizzy with unexpected passion, he imagined this blind white heat to be the same killing hate he had known so briefly and so long when he had thrown his fragile fighter high at the murderous enemy who was destroying his friends in the air. It was death we all hated. We knew they were like us, a barely different silhouette, and like us addicted to the cold brass balls of the ride. They tired the same muscles and cried into their drinks just as we did. It was death we all hated, and love not returning. And this is what I think of now, thinking of Elizabeth?
The trembling having ebbed to a slight numbness in his fingertips, George reached and took a long swallow from his mug. I suppose that tin perc’s really aluminium and I’ve been leaching madness into my coffee all these years. It’s the parting, isn’t it? God, you’re childish! Parting with Elizabeth… Puerile! What a leap, separation is death and Elizabeth’s the enemy. Freud, balls! Second childhood. Maybe it’s the water. You can’t leave her just because she’s finally flipped her lid, been cruel and foolish, a humiliation. I flipped too and spanked her. I wasn’t hating her. No, but you were angry. Yes, because she wouldn’t stop. She’s just been flying on and on, on her own, firing and firing. She had to be stopped. He heaved his lungs and wiped a hand the length of his face. Christ Almighty, I’m tired. Resting his head in the hand, he resisted thinking as long as he could, then swallowed the rest of the coffee.
Just the kitchen, if I kept the kitchen warm, closed off the rest, there’s enough stovewood in the shed. Come freeze-up, punch a hole in the ice, dip a pail. What the hell, get some supplies in. I could drop the cruiser back in the water, run downriver instead of suffering that dickhead at the marina. Used to be a good outfitter in Strawbridge. Y’ can’t do it. I can. You can’t, it’s insane, you’ve too much responsibility. Exactly. One call to Darla, she can pull the plug for me, take me off life support. Bullshit, they’d never let you, the Boards you’re on… They’d have to shoot you. Fuck ‘em! It’s not as if they can fire me. Sue me, maybe, say I’m dead, declare me missing in action, crashed, plug pulled, gone away, gone home.
George reached for an old polished birch twig hanging from a nail by a loop of twine and cleaned himself. I can hole up here if I fucking well want and they can all go suck eggs! Reslipping his braces, he gave the outhouse a quick inspection, noted a need for pruning the view, loped down to set the kitchen to rights, hung his bedding out to sun, shook down the stove, swept out his tracking in. The work made him peckish and the coffee was splashing up acid in his belly. He found some waxy biscuits and nibbled a few while he poked in the pantry for tins. Nothing appealed. I’ll have to drop down for supplies right smart. You can’t run the cruiser without a good soak first! Drop her in, she’s still wet from the summer. It’s Sunday. Shit. Sunday All Welcome. Yes! Fowl Supper. And he saw crackling gilded breast of chicken, scorched scallops thick with cream and onions, soft white rolls and too much butter, apple pie, cream pies, layer cakes and… Yes! Drop ‘er in, drop ‘er in. Doo dah, doo dah.
Down in the boathouse, George laid the old launch gently into the water, getting her feet wet, tightening her boards and for the sake of killing time he greased tracks and winch gears, gauged the spark, rubbed brass and took a long wash in the cold lake.

“What the hell are we getting into? I knew we should’ve gone up 400 and across somehow. I don’t know this road.” Sweat leaking from Katherine’s ballcap tickled past her ears and soaked into the collar of her flannel shirt. Her right hand swatted Martin in the passenger seat, “What’d that sign say? Where the hell do we turn? We’re gonna end up in downtown Peterborough if we don’t get off this soon.” Hunching over the wheel, she held the little Toyota wagon to the inside lane with her shoulders. “For chrisake, Martin, turn the damned heater down! Open your window and let some air in here, I’m roasting and it stinks. I told you no smelly stuff!”
Flashing her a look close to hatred, “You’re the one who cranked the heat on,” Martin examined the dash and slid a switch, rolled down the window with savage jerks of the handle and waved an arm into the rush of air, “That sign said ‘Ottawa’. Do we want Ottawa?”
“Jesus, you asshole! No, we don’t want Ottawa, we want highway twenty something, I think, twenty-six, twenty-eight, something like that.”
“Oh, how nice, a highway one’s own age, for a change,” Martin slid fingers down the carefully faded denim stretched to his thighs, “The ride of a lifetime,” He flicked fingers through his hair, “And the scenery’ll be fabulous.” He peered at a sign through his open window, “Now this road’s more you, isn’t it?”
“What?” Absorbed in the signs – Ottawa, No.7 East. No! Emily. Who the hell’s Emily? Port Hope, South. Not a hope. No, she wanted something North. Peterborough, A Special Place, 5 kilometers. Shit!
Martin watched her hands, “I mean, this road’s a hundred and fifteen, and boring,” prepared to duck if necessary.
“One fifteen, Martin, it’s called the one fifteen,” Annoyed with the road, she’d missed his meanness, “Parkway! That’ll be it, eh? A parkway’s a bypass, right? That’s what we want,” Turning her head with the first smile she’d managed since they started out of Toronto, she meant to be instructive, “Like the four-oh-one, Martin, you don’t call it the four hundred and one,” But some peripheral ear had noticed style perhaps, if not content, and she suspected that sharper comment was probably in order, “You’d think you’d never been north of Bloor Street. Have you?”
“Yes, Katherine,” Hissing scorn, “We do have a family place in Haliburton. I’ve done the outdoor thing, thank you very much,” His voice deepening into a drawl of old anger, Martin jerked his shoulder safety harness taut in his fists, “My brothers were happy little participactors, fucking scouts, taught me all the woodsy crap I ever want to know. How to carry the canoe, how to carry the firewood, how to carry the water buckets, how to carry all their stuff while they tracked the bear that’d rip me to shreds if I stopped carrying everything. Oh, sure. Boneheads!
“You’ll be glad to know I even brought their precious little primus stove, which Madge dumped on me in one of her annual getitoutofmyhouse frenzies, just in case the Redneck Hilton’s all booked up and we have to boil our own sticks and berries in some snake-ridden, white-trash campground. I hope you packed a tent, Katherine, because we are not… Hear me? …we are not staying in any trailer parks. I didn’t sin at birth and I’m not spending a minute sitting in the path of doom. I wasn’t trained for it. Are you listening? No trailer parks, no sleeping with cousins, no line-dancing. Clear?”
“Line-dancing?” Katherine had successfully scooted her wagon across three lanes of traffic into a slipway that curled and dipped and stopped for a light. “You good at that? I didn’t know you liked country stuff. I’ve never done it, but it sorta looks like fun. Jesus, I hate delayed greens. Sure is a shitload of traffic, I hope this parkway’s eight lanes and fast, I’m going to need a pee stop at the other end.” She punched the gears up through the intersection and pulled back into high, only to be braked into a hunch by narrowing lanes.
“Son of a bitch!” She thumped the wheel, “Something doesn’t look right about this,” She stretched her neck, kneaded it with rigid fingers and frowned at the residential streets, the trees and corner stores, “Maybe we’ll find a barroom floor up in Manooth and you can teach me the Roadkill Stomp, or something. Those heifer-hips on TV can do it, so can I. It’s just browsing in circles, they do it all day at the mall. I’m not surprised you’re good at it. Are you? Shit! This’s the fucking commercial district! The bastards, the lying bastards!”
Locked into a suddenly narrow stream of traffic, her boots pumping pedals, Katherine hunkered over the wheel, steering with a forearm, cranking through gears, her fingers scrabbling through pockets, the dash shelf, between seats, to hand herself wads of Kleenex, a honey cough drop, nose spray, and more Kleenex, an eyeliner she hadn’t seen for months and pocketed, a handiwipe to get the cough drop off her fingers and the bug guts off the centre of the windshield, another Kleenex, a cigarette, a lighter, a lighter, a light… “Where the hell’s that damned lighter? Gimme it, you little thief!” And she smacked Martin’s shoulder, missed a shift and stalled on a light.
“Look what you did now,” It came out puckered around the unlit cigarette which she waggled at Martin as she reached to the ignition, “Light me.”
Snapping her lighter to the tip and watching her hands and feet slap the machinery into motion, Martin thought Katherine had an interesting relationship with mechanics, she was the sensitive one. “You know, Katherine, you go through a gear box the way you go through people. D’ you ever notice that?”
“What, so I’m a bad person?” She gave Martin a raised eyebrow and a wry twist of her cigarette, “Look, we gotta make a stop. Okay? I have to. I have to pee. And I need something.”
“To drink?” Martin was arch, but he felt the need himself, “A nice cocktail?”
“No, I was thinking of…” She dug a couple of fingers into the centre of her brow, “Oh, well, a drink… But I need a dose of carbos, have to remember to feed the body as well as the spirit. Find us a place, Mart, no doughnut shops, and no pita crap, a café, or something. You watch your side. A drink and a french fry.”
Paul had quit Toronto, taken the late Saturday bus north, all the way home to Bannock. “Back in the Bun, then, Paul lad?” Bannock, the unleavened loaf, not sacred, just flat, hardtack, a place to dry your feet between the bog and the hill. “Stayin’ back at your Mom’s, then, are ya?” Bannock, pinched white and mean, mugged for a seam of cankered rock and trash trees, stood in the street and welcomed him back, “The city too big for ya, was it?”
A rednecked pecker of a town, Paul thought, my town, my people. He shivered and balled his fists, out on a run for cigarettes, his mother safely in church, he hadn’t dressed for conversation, “Tell you the truth, I couldn’t stand the stink and the noise anymore.”
“Well. Yah, I guess, eh? I hear it’s pretty bad, all the punks and the drugs and the fags. You do any big ones, then?”
Paul felt the blood rush high in his nose, tasted iron. The town knew, or thought it knew, what he did for sex; he’d always been discreet, more or less, but he wasn’t shy. Even so, it wasn’t usual for the town to ask. Unless it had a personal interest? Paul slid a cautious eye down to half-laced Kodiaks and back up the middle past a pouch of denim to a narrow chest and chin, sharp cheeks and a long smooth cap of yellow hair. The shag lives, he thought, skinky, but the eyes are wide enough to see past the nose. Maybe. Youth. Maybe. Times have changed. Maybe. Could do worse on a cold day. Done worse on a hot day. “Do what?”
“Drugs! City drugs,” Snorted in exasperation. and followed with a wry slow smile, “You twisted old lad.”
So, change at its petty pace, eh? Paul’s shoulders dropped. Not all rock and roll, but better than getting slapped about the head and called a faggot. His hands went to his jacket pockets for a rest, “Oh, sure, there’s great dope, pharmaceutical city, streets’re full of chemicals. Hell, the air’s full of chemicals, water’s full of chemicals, might as well do cocktails, go shopping and give everybody money. Buy your high, purple silks and the wine of Corinth, tits and ass on point, beer with ball and bad acoustics; it’s all drugs, Old Sailor on a bench in Allen Gardens, old scotch on the bench in wig and gown, choose your habit, but don’t spit on the sidewalk, eh, it’s a world-class city!”
“Whoa, Nelly, sounds like you got a bit burnt there.”
“Well, it wasn’t the drugs, but it might have been the attitude.” There was something about the yellow shag… “You’re Marcy Fell’s brother, aren’t you?”
Shy pleasure opened the focus of the wide enough eyes.
“I thought so, you’ve got the same hair. Marcy could sit on hers in highschool. She and I used to skip and hitch rides down to Belleville together, do the malls.”
“Good old Mars, eh. She’s livin’ in Ottawa, doin’ somethin’ for the government.” Said with pride and skepticism.
“Good for her. She always wanted out. She married yet?”
“Nah, she’s got a guy she lives with, shares this neat place like, but he’s hardly ever there, goes all over the place, Germany, Africa, the States, all over. He’s even been to Colombia, eh? No souvenirs, though. Mars calls him the attaché case, does foreign aid, or something, gives all our money to the spear-chuckers most likely, fuckin’ government. He’s all right, though, played Junior B for St. Catherines. I was over once to see Mars and he was there, me and him went over the river for a few Cinquantes, he’s really got his dick up for Mars, but she’s hardly ever there, either, all over the country, down to the States doin’ speeches and meetings and stuff. Carryin’ the club, she says, for humane trapping. You know? Tryin’ to keep the Red Brethern from starvin’ to death before they can get a couple casinos, or an oil well, or somethin’ up and runnin’ to help pay for the feathers, she says. Tryin’ to show ‘em how to milk the wild rice and the whatd’y’callit oil the way the Mennonites and the maple syrup guys do, little gingham hats on things, that kinda shit. Not what she’s supposed to be doin’, gettin’ them to stop with the legholds, but Mars thinks they can get the fur trade turned around with one of these ethnic culture scams. You know, spread around some fur hats and blankets to the politicians, do some big dress-up dances, canoe trips for the Tilley hats; get ‘er rollin’ and the tourists’ll be payin’ big bucks for it and everybody gets a piece. Trouble is, Mars says, is gettin’ the pricks who really want the fur bedspreads to cough up real money for the Injuns so they can get decent enough to make it look like a free-trade deal, instead of a rip-off.”
Marcy’s little brother. Jesus! That day Marcy and I got stuck with him out at the lake, he must’ve been about fourteen, had on a little blue Speedo and a whonking big basket… Yah, and he was supposed to be on sex drugs, or something weird, and nobody knew if he could get a hard… “Hard to believe it’s been so long, eh? You know, I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten, what’s your name?”
“Little Brat Fell, stuff him in the well, nobody wants him, we won’t tell!”
Paul erupted in laughing surprise, “Brad! Oh, god, I remember! Little Brat Fell. We were mean little fuckers, weren’t we?”
“Mars always said you said it was your first poem.”
“My first poem, I said that? Oh, I was a pretentious little asshole. Probably thought I was Eliot already. Yuck! Thought I was Pope in highschool, the bent little poet, not the big bent priest. Pope’s good for puberty, everybody’s a bit out of shape with their hands in their pants, that’s why they do him in school.” Paul felt another wave of blood rising and fought to change the subject, “How old are you now, anyway?”
“Twenty-six.”
“Soooo… five years, eh…” Infancy should be safe, “We must’ve been eight, nine, you’d’ve been about three, trying to follow us everywhere and beat up our knees. You were dangerous. You wouldn’t even watch tv. You know, I was probably Mister Rogers, or Finnigan, at that age, not Pope. Might’ve been Vivian Vance. If you’re twenty-six, where’s the wife and kids and the pickup with the gunrack? And the dog? I didn’t think they let you stay in town after highschool unless you bought the kit.” Paul answered a still raised eyebrow, “Ethel Mertz, Viv…”
“Oh, yah! I knew it rang a bell, eh. She still alive?”
“I think. How’s your mother, by the way? Lucy’s dead, though.”
“All right. Yah, too bad. Probably just as well though, she was lookin’ pretty much like a clubbed seal there for the last while. Lucy, I mean. D’ you ever see that Mame, or whatever, movie she did?”
“With Bea Arthur in a bale of brown velvet…”
“Yah! And the hunt scene? All your horses and riders goin’ back and forth and back and forth and back and forth over the fences like a chorus line couldn’t stop… Wow! I always thought that’s one of the funniest things… Good as the ‘Sing a nigger song’ bit in… what d’ y’ callit, …Saddles.”
“Blazing Saddles.” His head bobbing, Paul thought he couldn’t believe his ears and thought what a cliché that was. Of course, it’s a cliché because it’s actually happening, Pollywog, you’re pretending not to believe your ears because your heat just went to boil. Pulling his hands from his jacket, he shoved them deep in his jeans. You mean high blood pressure is distorting your aural percep… Your oral perceptions are distorting your… Never mind! He’s bright, he knows what’s funny. Bannock lives! Breathe. God, I hope my fly’s done up. Breathe. Through your nose! Don’t drool, keep your mouth shut, you can’t ask him if he wants… “I get no kicks from champagne, pure alcohol doesn’t… You mean that scene? …I get my kicks out of you.”
“Yup, one of the best ever. Tough guys blown away with perfect harmony, that’s righteous for sure.” Head ducking to hide a blush, Brad chipped a Kodiak at the sidewalk, “I do some keyboards at the Arlen weekends, me and two other guys, ‘Hickey Flats’, you know, ‘cause of the place and ‘cause we don’t practice enough.” The blush ripened, but his face turned up with a spreading grin, “Dewey Tait’s on drums and Little Rob’s got an old electric slide looks like a kitchen table, you know, all chrome and that Elvis plastic. Played back for John Fort last year. ‘Member him, with the fiddle? Learned some good tunes, but his bow’s always in your face. Know what I mean? Women like it. My mom’s not doin’ bad. I’m not buyin’ the married kit yet ‘cause y’ have to spend all your time at Canadian Tire just to keep it on the road. Y’ know Old Bruce chugged his last brew, eh?”
“Your dad. I heard. She get over that okay?”
“Ah, he was such an old boozer, eh, I think she’s glad she doesn’t have to think about him drivin’ home from the Legion without puttin’ the car in the river anymore. She got to re-do the house, anyway. I kept his stuffed fish. You oughta see some of those suckers, man, I’ve got a muskie hangin’ over my bed must be that long!” Studying the length held in his hands, Brad failed to notice the sudden break of sweat at Paul’s hairline. “Mars’s got all his old spring traps and stretchers and stuff hangin’ all over her walls. Weird, eh?”
“Might explain the traveling boyfriend.”
“Hah! Could do. Mars says it’s to remind her she’s Old Bruce’s daughter. Don’t know what she needs reminding for. She drinks those spritzers. Me, I still do beer.”
Paul’s fists clenched in his jeans and he turned in small pivots on his heels, “D’ you want to go for a drink somewhere?”
“It’s Sunday,” Brad pointed his chin down the block at a clumsy brick bulk, “They’re all in there. You still got that old humpback Ovation you used to play at church things?”
Arching his back to a goose-run down his spine, Paul’s buttocks rose and blood flowed in his groin. Fuck! Not likely. Not here. Calm down. Except for the heathen running the Quicky and the boys in clean shirts pumping gas at the corner, business sat in Chapel hawking morality and spitting on sin. “You remember that, eh?” Hanging over his bed, eh? “You believe I was idiot enough to give that guitar away? Somebody I thought… Stupid! She looked so much like Joni, teeth and all, I thought she could play. She went and married a real bozo, lives in Etobicoke, god knows where the guitar is. She’s probably got braces in her mouth. Hope she snags the wire on Bozo’s dick. Jesus! I sure could use a… coffee, anyway.”
“Hey!” An idea lit Brad’s face, “You know Salmon, old Crustless Sam…”
“Sammie the Leaping Salmon? Ohhh, yes. He in the pen yet?”
“Nah, he’s got a place out the Mill bridge, just off the highway, on the river, but down a bit. Used to be a boat shed there, but he got all hippie-crafty with one of those leather aprons for his hammer and stuff. I say he did a B and E on the Cashway, place looks like a blown-up beaver lodge, dangerous as all hell. He’s not even supposed to be livin’ there, but the Reeve’s got his mitts on most of Sam’s side, and his brother-in-law’s got the other bank, so they figure Sam’s spooky enough to keep major assholes out of their private fishin’ hole. And that fucker Salmon’s got ‘em convinced he hates eatin’ fish ‘cause of his name. Pretty wicked.” Brad shook his head with a wide, sweet grin, “Anyway, Sam’s always got coffee on.” His pause was a question. “This side of the bridge, just in to the right there.”
“Sammy at the Bridge, eh? Holding his sword in both hands like always?”
“No, Sam’s got cool now. Says he raised his stick in every bar and every woman from Belleville up to the Park, and he never mis-cued once, so it was time to retire the champ. He says things like that. You believe he says things like that?”
“Oh, yah. Sammy’s his own legend. Canned Salmon. Nobody else’s gonna come up with that much bullshit. Always figured he had to play Geronimo to keep the bad boys out of his hair. Not necessarily the swiftest move, but he sure got laid a lot.” Paul looked down to the Kodiaks and back up, “You buddies?”
Brad couldn’t help the guilty blush, “Yah. Kind of. Just like when we were kids, I’m supposed to be grateful and do whatever he says. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Depends.” He shrugged, “Gotta make your own fun around here. You wanta go out to the Bridge, have a coffee?”
“Go visit the Troll? You driving?”
George hesitated at the closet. What to wear to supper in the village church, doo dah, doo dah. The off-duty khakis he’d worn on the ride up smelled like an old man and a pale spot of boat gas marked one knee. And he didn’t keep a banker’s broadcloth at the lake, power suiting too easily could offend. It wasn’t unknown for couturiers to be lumped with taxgatherers and thieves. An elder in his own church, George remembered only too well the ecclesiastical Hat Wars of the fifties that had ended with a church on its knees in prayer, head uncovered except for the dressy sacraments of baptism, matrimony and interment.
The first sign of Armageddon, in the eyes of the church ladies and not a few husbands, had been unhatted females in the Sunday congregations. Auxiliaries rose in arms. Presidents resigned. Institutes verged on collapse. Deacons went into hiding. Sees and synods trembled. And ministers of God were forced to lock vestry doors. Then Missus Kennedy took to the little pill-box hat. Her triumph and tragedy distracted the combatants and by the time she sailed away with her Greek, the significance of hats had sailed with her. Of course, Elizabeth had been in the thick of the fight defending hats like a Stuart royalist, and the cause being abandoned to the course of history, she boxed her hats and hid them in a cupboard, to await the word out of France.
George had rather thought at the time that another Greek, the Metropolitan Makarios, whose orthodox headdress made the rest look silly, had helped seal the issue. Who could compete with veiled black? But he decided for himself that dumpy would be safe church supper wear, clean corduroys and a hard old blazer of blackthorn twist. A highball would nicely take the edge off his dullness, with a gargle after, but he feared it might flush up last night’s soaking to the surface to ooze stale from his pores, and the camphor in the tweed was whiffy enough.
Carl Cameron slammed the big fridge door, growled at the waitress and drank himself a beer. The day’d gone bad, he could taste it, like the beer, he thought. Wouldn’t ya just know the Mexicans’d make a beer that tastes like it sat in a snowbank a couple days, that half-frozen sunshine skunk flavour, weasel piss, memories of a country boy. He reached above the cash register and cranked an old George Jones coming up on the tape. The waitress’s eyes slitted.
Carl had opened up, prepped and cooked his way to the end of his shift. Not! Carl was going to be cooking, cleaning and closing his partner’s shift because she’d been having so much fun lately she’d gotten sick and was home in bed with bad flu. Carl wasn’t even going to get a break. He thought, as he gave George another boot, that if anybody walks through that door right now, I’m gonna drink another beer.
Katherine was busy knowing where her keys were and that the car was locked and which direction they’d left it and hoping that Martin didn’t expect her to pay for him and that he probably did since this trip was her idea, so that she was close to standing on Carl’s feet by the time she noticed where she was, “D’ you do french fries?” Carl’s smile was evil as he held her eyes, slid the door of the fridge and reached himself another jar of weasel piss; he liked to cook and he dearly loved a victim.
Martin knew he’d made a mistake, picked the most godawful loser joint in the whole of Peterborough, there wasn’t a potted pasta tied with a ribbon in the place, nothing was pink. Katherine was talking to some greasy sailor in much too tight a teeshirt. There were pictures all over the walls and they weren’t even framed. The man’s apron is filthy! Oh god, Elvis shit! Aesthetically bruised, Martin winced at the waitress bussing a booth, “Do you have cocktails?”
Her eyes had almost closed with the pain of George Jones, but she could spot an asshole from a coma, “Do I have cock tales?” She jerked a thumb at Carl swilling beer, his eyes locked to the pushy bitch, “There’s one peckerhead story for you. I’ll bet you’ve got one of your own. No liquor. Wine or beer. Sit.” She waved a flat hand at the back booth, “But not there. I’ll get you an ashtray. You are with her, aren’t you?” At Martin’s nod, she rolled her eyes open and turned, “She needs a drink. I’ll ask her what you’re having. Sit.”
Carl was too busy slicing up potatoes to stop when George Jones moaned to the end, giving the waitress just time enough to pluck tape and slap Dusty Springfield into sound, before Carl could get his mouth open far enough to tell her what to play next. As often as possible she beat him to the choice, because the anguish of his choices was more than she could bear. Every choice for him was painful, fear-ridden and desperate, forever an act of abandoning, a bailout, a leaving unexpected, a going into dark. It was like road-show Brando, it left her breathless and feeling not a little greasy.
She poured bitter cold wine into a carafe, one elbow cocked to the open fridge door grounding her in its chill breath, one ear cocked for the beginning growl of Carl’s distress. It really was time she moved on, got the hell out of this one-nag burg, she’d chewed the juice, the only flavour left was concrete, she startled no one. Time for a legitimate hobby, she needed a role with a bit of dignity attached because she doubted she was going to get any tidier, or refuse a sociable drink.
She grabbed glasses out of Carl’s view, figuring that, targetless, given time to refocus, he might slip into Dusty and do his own ‘Son of a Preacherman’. It could happen. You couldn’t get a Jeannie C. past him, but he’d do Peggy Lee if he was feeling sexy. Placing carafe and glasses, she plucked an ashtray from another table to set within easy reach, expecting to empty it a time or two before these two sucked air again. Hand on hip, she stood by to see if they could manage for themselves. An awful rummaging and shifting about took place, a production of Kleenex and lighters and cigarette packs, a tube of 222’s, a shedding of road dust, so she retrieved the carafe and poured the glasses full.
She knew it was time to go. Reaching full length, she plucked menus from behind the napkin box, offered them like aces to the punters and considered her duty done.
“Son of a gunnn of a preacherman!” Deeply twisted into a moan, Carl mouthed a soup ladle and shimmied his butt in a series of bumps to the oven door, “…preacherman… son of a… What the… Hey! What the fuck’re you doin’?”
He had watched without registering as the waitress unknotted the strings of her long white apron, wadded and tossed it at the laundry bag, as she picked and pocketed a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from the shelf over the sinks, as she held him for one long moment in her eyes, then turning, snapped Dusty from the tape machine saying, “She’s too hard to find, otherwise I’d leave her for you.” She realized he needed a cue, the ladle was still at his lips, “I’ve just quit, Carl. You can handle those two out there and it’s not going to get any busier… so… I haven’t done anything to cash out on and… I guess…” She screwed her mouth in thought, “It’s only two days pay… You can send it, I’ll let you know.” And she slid in quick strides to the coatrack by the door. One arm in a sleeve, she looked to the pair still flapping between gulps of wine in the booth, hollered, “Ordering!” and when Carl’s mystified frown loomed in the gap above the cash register, she slipped the other sleeve, shrugged and waved, “Have a good life, Carl!”
She walked! That bitch just walked! Carl rattled his head, then swivelling his eyes from wall to wall, he blinked a reality check to make sure he was where he thought he was, raised both arms at his sides to assure the third dimension, slid the fridge door and reached for his cigarettes. A drag and a drink, weasel piss and coffin nails. Sounds like a banjo tune. He threw his head back for a wail, “I suck weasel piss and coffin nails, baa-by! Doo ah.”
Legs spradled, Carl stood in a sweat-stained undershirt, split-knee jeans with a busted fly wrapped in a grease-stiff apron, ankles showing pink over filthy sneakers. He stank of garlic and skunk and nicotine, a blackened elastoplast rotted on a slashed thumb as he ran his cigarette hand over his bronze pompadour. His waitress had just given him the finger. That cunt! ‘Course it’ll be all my fault. I need a bath. He sucked on his beer, “Weasel piss and coffin nails will kill ya, baaaa-by!” Hey, I can handle it.
He swaggered to the booth, “So, what’d youse like with yer fries, eh? I can do ya real grease burgers, oozing with cheddar and mozzerella, mess of fried onions, dripping with my own creamy sauce, kinda cheesy on the tongue… Or,” His eyebrows rose and his lips pursed in contemplation, “sigh, I could do you nachos with… you know…” He threw down his hand, “nacho stuff on ‘em.” He stretched his jaw and scratched his belly in fake approval, “Yuppie.”
He examined the woman’s mask, which is what he saw, a mask of smooth oiled parchment drawn tight over some possibly quite interesting neuroses. Carl saw people clearly, he believed, and the transparency of their guile shocked him, who believed himself to be innocent in full view, and it explained the numbers of beers, the whisky shots, which helped to blur the depths of shallowness and tune his wired nerve to the seriously distraught. Takes one to know one, “D’ you think you could manage a bit of crispy bacon on your burger?” Carl turned his eyes but not his head, “You look like you could use a piece of meat, too.” Fussy little faggot, he thought, does a much talked about cheesecake, kiwi cream in lime puddle. Irons his socks. “You up for bacon, too? I got a length of sausage might interest ya.”
Martin was almost positive he was mortified. This greaseball was beating on his manhood! Maybe. Almost certainly there was innuendo in this hick performance. Where does this yahoo get off questioning something he knows nothing about, or is that just the way they talk? Insolence from wait-persons might be an accepted standard, but that’s because they’re better, of course, than their jobs, not worse. “What is it, a local thing, to keep beef between your ears, Popeye?”
Katherine was alert now, any show of seduction, clash of antlers, was welcome, but Martin in a snit was to be avoided. She placed a gentling hand on his wrist, “Cool it, Martin, take a deep breath, we all know you’re a good person. You don’t have to eat anything you don’t want. He does make it sound kind of sexy, though, doesn’t he?” She patted the wrist, “This’s on me.”
Martin wanted to kill her then; she was willing to pay for his humiliation, how nice. Maybe he didn’t mean it that way, maybe I just look hungry. Why does she think he means anything? Because she’s got a dirty mind! So, what did he mean? Oh, dear… Suddenly flustered beyond understanding, “Where’s your washroom? Excuse me, I…” Half out of the booth, Martin made a swipe for his wine and drained it, “I’ll have whatever’s going.” He was forced to duck and weave round Carl’s elbow, on the beer side, and when Carl cocked his jaw and spoke from the side of his face, “No jerking off in the can, buddy,” Martin went cold and hot and cold and hot and worried about the doorlock and couldn’t think to pee.
Sam Salmon believed he was full-blood Indian, though a mirror was his only proof. The high Asian cheekbones, the narrow knuckle-bridged semitic nose, the dark, deep southern eyes, the thick black hair which he could plait into rope one-handed looked like Chief material to him. Found in the woodbox next the stove in the parish priest’s kitchen up in Manooth, he could have been Irish, but surely none of the local girls had been that far gone without a husband, besides, the priest would’ve known, even if he couldn’t say. Gossip figured he’d been thrown by one of the young squaws from up the lake, one of old Sam Golder’s daughters or grandaughters, or a niece, or… You’d just never know, there were so many and they never spoke. So, Sam had been delivered to the hospital in Bannock labeled, ‘Sam’, for convenience, ‘Indian’. ‘Unknown’.
Pitied by a couple of Scotch social-management types who had fled bureaucracy for the bush, he had been, after four years of perseverence and familiarity with red tape, adopted as Sam Salmon. The day his classmates snickered when the kindergarten teacher held up How Sammy Squirrel Got His Name at story time, something curiously hard set like plaster in Sam’s heart. And when he got to grade nine and Shakespeare and heard about irony, he had a word to put to the disgusting stupidity of having become a Salmon instead of a MacBeth, or a MacDuff, even a MacIntosh would do. If he’d lost the chance to be an Eaglefeather, or a Manygrayhorses, that the Salmons didn’t have a proper Scotch francise to their name was ridiculously unfair! Even MacSalmon would have done, though he later came, when everything but fried cat had been MacBunned, to appreciate that mercy.
Name-calling is a childish art and ‘Crustless’ was the creation of the highschool pep club president; she meant tidy white bread finger sandwiches and she meant to be malicious. Fresh from gym and the shower, the boys told her she was wrong, Sam had never been trimmed, but the name stuck off and on just to see her blush. Sam’s ease with girls and the obvious fact that he liked himself, if not his name, pissed off a few of the town skinks who dredged up the hoary apocrypha of tales about castration with tin lids, dirt crusted, germ ridden, rusty tin lids, and they started to holler things like, “Hey, Canned Salmon!” and “Check yer bag, boy?” It got pretty ugly till one of them fell out the back door of the Arlen on a Saturday night and came-to naked Sunday morning spread-eagled atop a beaver dam; he only remembered being carried and saw through the pain in his skull the gold flash of sun on beaver teeth.
Slumped in an old canvas sling chair rescued from the dump, popped dowels reglued and rotten canvas reinforced with a rescued macramé plant hanger, Sam lay soaking thin sun through flannel and denim to his brown skin and bones. A hand on his belly, he felt hard, lean and smug; the last of his stove wood was split and stacked in the shed; the big tank was full of propane all paid for in cash, which was the only way he could get delivery; he’d been up the pole to rehook his hydro now it was getting too cold for the boys to get out of the truck for a looksee, and the disc player he’d traded for a set of rescued truck hubs gave better tunes than his old tapedack. Sam was as happy as he ever got.
On a black night, standing next a cedar fire snapping into stars, with enough liquor inside and a long stout pole in his hands to weight and support his dreaming, a sense of power, a feel for majesty could flood him and his braid would lie heavy on his back. Or running the coloured balls in a rhythm of clicks to a crescendo of silent fury and a collection of folded bills could bathe him in a wild feral sweat of cunning triumph. Orgasm of any kind was always a dip into a memory of ecstasy. Being ready for winter before it came, that washed Sam in the blood.
The drive to the bridge was short and furious, Brad leaping the primer gray Camaro from crest to crest of the rising landscape to drop it in a crash of gears and gravel at the foot of a cluster of towering pines. Paul withdrew his legs slowly from the nose of the car, catching his breath and giving himself time to see through the trees, to get a long look at Sam’s cabin.
The boathouse had been left a shed, the oldest of four attached in a cross to a centre square shed of greater height – twenty, twenty-four feet, he supposed, the length of the lumber – with tall windows high in its sides of cedar plank slowly silvering. A passing cloud turned the colour to stone, and with a bit of a squint Paul saw a citadel, a castle keep. The cloud moved and he could see the rubble Brad had called dangerous; teetering stacks of lumber, heaps of rusting iron and rain-hardened cement sacks, boxes of bottles, cans, nails, bundles of tarpaper, curling shingles, rotting tarps and broken barrows, everything gritty with sand and poked through with rank grass and nettles. And in a low chair convenient to a cracked and corroded stove top half sunk in the earth, Sam stretched, flicked ashes at the stove, drew on his cigarette, scratched at his groin and said, “Jesus, Paul Magarry.”
“Some wigwam, Sammy.” A judicious pursing prevented Paul’s mouth from splitting in a grin, “Brad said it looked like the highway boys shoved dynamite up a beaver house.”
“Uum. I figure if it looks bombed already maybe they’ll leave it alone. They never can tell, could be a rusty old trap or two hidin’ around just about pecker high in all this garbage. Country boys’re shy of most things with teeth. You still got your teeth, Magarry? They teach you not to bite in the big city?” This time he rubbed his groin and wagged his eyebrows.
“You’re still a pig, Sammy. I’m surprised somebody hasn’t shoved a shotgun down your jeans long ago.”
“In your dreams, Magarry. Not enough room for a second gun in my pants, now you, I hear…” He let it hang, looked over at Brad and winked.
Paul grinned at last and snorted, “You’re a real porker, Salmon, not just as cute as you used to be, but hey, still kickin’ shit.”
“Well, what’s shit anymore, eh? Sam whistled a sigh through a gap, “Gettin’ hit hurts a lot longer than it used to, and you know what it’s like around here, you have to go to church and put money in the plate if you want any real protection, so I had to figure some way to keep the yahoos out of my yard.”
“You could make yourself a bear story.”
“Oh, hell, I got one. Big black bitch of an old sow hidin’ out there in the berry bushes. Oh sure, cubs every spring. Meaner’n skunk shit, just lurkin’.”
“You’re a credit to your race, Sammy.”
The black eyes glittered, “And you’re still a prick.”
“Oh, get over it Geronimo, you know what I mean, for all you know you’re Irish. I mean, you’re doing what you’re good at.” Paul stooped for a lump of hardened Portland and bounced it on his palm, “A little creative camouflage and a bit of ball-crawling fear, keeps the cowboys on their toes.” He winged the concrete into the bush.
“Watch you don’t hit my bear, Magarry.”
Paul grinned and shook his head, “You’re a good Indian, Sammy, even if you were raised by Scrooge McDuck and Lassie.” He looked at Brad who was shifting his boots and switching hands from pockets to hips and back again, “You didn’t know we called them that, did you, the Scotch Salmons? You were too little, you’d have blabbed and we’d have gotten smacked.” Turning back to Sam, his voice went soft, “You ever see ‘em, Sammy?”
When they had first come north, the Salmons had bought up a roadside housekeeping cabin layout with a view to knotty pine and tartan for the hunting set, but they were in the wrong country at the wrong time, land was about as cheap as the weekly rate, so mostly what they got were people stopping by to ask the way to the real estate office. They held on, doing a little bootlegging to get through the winters, until Sam turned sixteen and walked out with his life in a dufflebag. They sold up then, moved back to live below the blackfly line and work for the Children’s Aid.
Paul spoke again into an old silence, “You know, they didn’t do such a bad job on you, Sambo, you got this goin’ for yourself,” He palmed the river and the cabin and the bush, “Hell of a bit more than I’ve got at the moment.”
“They didn’t want me bein’ an Indian.”
“Fuck, Sam, that was then, nobody wanted to be an Indian. Okay for kids playin’ at, but it was not cool, Sam. You know that better than anyone else, look at the shit you took. They probably thought you’d be better off.”
“They probably thought they’d be better off denyin’ my cultural heritage. They were sittin’ on Indian land, y’ know.”
“Oh sure, right on Wigwam Way. Corner of Wigwam and Birch, wasn’t it? For chrissake, Sammy, the place was built in a bog, no real Indians ever lived there!”
“It was our land, Magarry. I’d watch my mouth, if I was you, the Native Brethern’re learnin’ a thing or two about defamation an’ stuff.”
“And learning quickly to be as righteous as the Plymouth brethern. Your land is my land. How come, if you invented cigarettes and corn on the cob and baked potatoes, we don’t hear a lot about farming as one of your earth chores, eh? If you’re so handy with the sap bucket and the spruce dip, what’s with the slot machines? You…” Paul wagged a hand at Sam, “You First Nation guys… if that’s what you’re bein’… I don’t know… banks’ve got the money, government’s got the lotteries, traders’ve got the futures, they’re all makin’ billions sellin’ people chances on their own hope, and you guys pick the one-armed bandits and the card tables. I don’t know… I think you’re tradin’ for infected blankets all over again.”
“Magarry, d’ you ever know what the hell you’re talkin’ about?”
“Oh, well then, enough Cultural Studies. Though I really would like to know where those little fart-catcher hangy things come from. But seriously, Scrooge and the Lass ever been here, Sam?”
“Nope. Never see ‘em, can’t ask ‘em.”
“Oh, that’s complicated, Samo, a real puzzler. There’s therapy, you know, a little gestalt, a little hypnosis and… Poof! Happy families. Or you could just reach out and touch somebody.” Paul faked a phone to his ear.
“You’re pickin’ my nose, Magarry.” It was a warning growl.
“Fine. Fine. It’s not my business.” Paul showed his palms in a gesture of peace, “Brad here says you make good coffee. Why don’t you offer us some, and maybe you’ll feel better about yourself and stop this incessant bickering.”
“Jesus, Magarry!” Sam crushed his cigarette on the rusted stove top, “You just never quit.” He levered his long bones out of the sling, “What the hell, come on in.”
Paul smiled at Brad, “He’s always been gracious.”
Martin shook it and shook it and shook it, and then because he wasn’t any boyscout, he shook it again. Slowly and with finicking care, he retucked himself and examined the position of his hair in the square of mirror over the basin, avoiding images of a greasy roll of teeshirt ringing hot heat-pinked bicep and thick raw fingers pinching a butt to lips, and his focus slid from hairline to mouth and the bitter smile in the mirror met the one in his mind and he caught his zipper on his dick.
Banging out of the washroom, scrappy with annoyance and relief, a rather stimulating pain and no blood, hungry enough to eat whatever this yahoo served up and then get the hell out, Martin stumbled into Carl propped against the big fridge. “Got that meat on the grill yet, garçon?” Martin flagged a thumb at the kitchen opposite, “What’s the holdup? Pompadour too heavy? We’re travellin’, you know, fella. We’re truckin’ through and we got no time for roadhouse romance. Understand? So, if this’s gonna complicate your life a lot, Zeke, just point us north and we’re mounted.”
Pinching his butt to death with gnawed nails, Carl avoided crashing his beer into the head of this lame nitwit doing hardman imitations in a spotted hanky and jeans tight enough for a twelve year old girl. He rubbed out the coal of his smoke with a dirty sneaker toe, wet himself with the end of his beer and slid the bottle on top of the fridge. With one heavy, thick-fingered hand, he pinned Martin’s wrists to the wall above his head and raised a knee to his balls to discourage kicking, while the other hand gripped Martin’s jaw. Carl growled and flashed his eyes, looked hateful, looked contemptuous, pitying, lascivious, and with a slow drawn bowing of his head, pressed his lips hard to Martin’s and slid in his tongue.
A single nerve twanged from Martin’s lip to his loins, split and twanged to his toes. Plucked. Flayed. Disemboweled. Sun and air and stranger’s stare on guts exposed, and instantly the pain of tarnishing, of erosion and decay closed around the wound, and he bit on Carl’s tongue to make him withdraw.
Martin considered exploding in a hissing spit of heels and clenched nails; hard leather kicking kneecaps, clawed fingers raking fat pink flesh, crushing leaps to plant both boots a-dancing on soft body parts, balled fists pounding__ But no, the guy’s big, tall, taller, if I had my boots off. And heavier. Fifty pounds. Forty. Bullshit. Twenty, anyway, and mean, you can tell. I know the kind. Martin darted a look at Carl’s knuckles, but saw no love or hate in inked scratches. Probably don’t even have reformatories any more, just leave ‘em in the streets till they’re sent up for life. This bastard could be walking parole for rape and murder, for all anybody can tell. Actually, if you hosed him down… The hair’d have to go. Martin was quickly offensive, rubbing his wrists with great show, unsure how loud his twanging nerve had hummed, “You’re really queer, aren’t you?”
That being a response he hadn’t considered, Carl hid his confusion in a long double-take, wetting his tongue against the sting, “I musta been acting out loud. You liked it, didn’t you?”
Martin wished he had a rag and a bucket of hot soapy water to go at this wall, he could feel his shirt sticking to it, “I do not like to be mauled…” a real scrubbing, “possibly assaulted, by greasy…” you’d need Pinesol, “…smelly, strange men!” Mister Clean. “I do not loiter in public toilets, I do not…”
“Yah, yah, yah. No, my act, though, you liked my act, didn’t you?”
“That was an act?” It was Martin’s turn to hide behind a raised eyebrow and a very doubtful tone, “You’re just a lumberjack and you’re okay, is that it? Butch of the North kisses strange men by the cookhouse door, how very Jack London. And you call this an act… of what? God? Faith? Mercy?”
“Well, yah.” Carl picked at his teeth, he’d thought the little bugger just needed an excuse to go down on him, and here he was instead arguing about who’s queer. Jeez! “Look, little buddy, you’re the queer here and I was just trying to make you feel at home. You don’t have to get a hair up your ass.”
“You fucking hick! I am not your little buddy! And I’m not…”
“Hey, Marty!” Katherine’s bellow was apprehensive and warning.
“…fucking queer! And I’m not staying here another minute!” Brushing off Carl with a gesture of hands that could’ve dropped furs, Martin stalked to the booth and scooped cigarettes, jacket, a little cashmere scarf with one hand, the other on hip, all the while glaring at Katherine and darting ‘run for the door’ signals with his eyes. “We’re out of here. We’re late. We’re not hungry. Those people will be wondering where we are. Come on, Katherine, let’s go. Now.”
“Who?”
“You and I.”
“What people?”
“Who?”
“The ones who’re wondering where we are.”
Lips shrivelling with furious frustration, eyes watering with tears, Martin drew a single breath from his cowboy heels to hiss through his teeth, “Fine. You want to stay in this godforsaken greaser lounge, fine. Enjoy the floor show. Be the floor show. I know the donkey’s got it up. I’m leaving.”
Straighten it out, or go unfed. Katherine felt a weak wave of nausea, topped up her wineglass and reached for her smokes, “Sit down, Martin. I’ve got the keys.” Looking past him to Carl, “Those fries anywhere near done yet? I’m faint.” And back again, “Sit. Whatever he said, I’m sure you just got it wrong.”
“What he said? What he did!”
Katherine hadn’t actually seen what went on behind the big fridge, but she needed no more than a look at the two of them to make a guess. She knew what she’d do to make Martin squirm, if she were a man. However, “Was it good?” She patted the table edge opposite and beamed encouragement to confession.
It worked, of course, because Martin’s strong survival instinct told him to stay within reach of the car keys, and frankly, he told himself, the streets out there’ll be mean with rednecks, and all I had was a banana for breakfast, “Okay. We’ll stay to eat because you need it…” He cast his eyes at her wineglass as he slipped into the booth, “…but he is not to speak to me, he is not to come near me. You get the plates from him, we eat, and then we leave. That asshole’s dangerous. I won’t be responsible for anything that happens.”
You never are, Katherine thought, but didn’t say, and yet you’re entirely responsible every goddamned time, you little megalomaniac, always the glory but never the blame. She was quite aware that she made horrible errors in judgement of other people’s lives, cretinously stupid errors, in fact, but about Martin she had no doubt, he was the ultimate transparency, he wasn’t in a closet, he was in a baggie. She assumed that he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, admit to his sexuality because of family. The corgi-breeding mother and the tartan-weaving father sounded, from Martin’s sketchy tales, like some berserk version of the Royal Family, his brothers the good princelings who went to sea in twenty-six footers at H.M.C.S. York and married for continuity. She suspected that Martin, in his heart of hearts, still hoped it was a passing phase and he would come to be as safely insulated from himself as his father and his brothers.
“You know, you’re going to have to stop being so goddamned precious, Marty.” She knew how much he hated a hockey-stick ‘y’ on the end of his name. He wasn’t a team player.
“Don’t push me, Kate.” He figured that ought to hurt, only her runaway husband called her Kate.
“I’m serious.” She couldn’t deny duty, no matter the pain.
“So am I.” Keeping himself carefully constructed to conceal the fact that other people were a complete mystery to him, Martin wasn’t about to surrender his own rules for hers, “Don’t push.”
“What is it that you can’t handle?” I should be able to do this, Katherine thought, after all, I am a teacher.
“It’s just not something we talk about. Okay?” Martin resorted to the only advice his father had ever offered.
She was irritated by his refusal , but then again, she wasn’t getting paid for therapy. “Think the Leafs’ll take the cup?”
Martin’s lip stiffened, “You don’t have to get sarcastic, we can always talk about you. I expect you’ve got lots more things to tell me about yourself. Anything interesting?”
Her eyes rolled and riveted his through their sockets to the back of his head, “Jesus, you’re a mean little fuck. Is there anything you do like?” Something startling occured to her, “You don’t even like sex, do you?” Her own mouth hanging open in disbelief, she broke her stare before it could weaken with pity, and bellowed, “Where the hell are those fries!”
Thinks she knows everything, stunned c… Shocked mid-thought by her holler, Martin’s mind bounced and slithered to the magazines and towels beneath his bed, the runway of crystal candlesticks reflected in his bathroom mirror. I like sex. I do. It’s messy, but you don’t have to let other people see that. His fingers busily tidied the butts in the ashtray, filters stacked to the right of the ash neatly troweled. He unpinned his eyes from the back of his head and settled a sour look on Katherine. He had nothing more to say.
“Okay, fine.” Propping herself against the wall, she stretched her legs the length of the seat and topped her glass from the carafe, “We’ll talk about what I’m going to do with my life now that you’ve ruined my career.”
Martin spit back open with a dry pop, “Your career? I ruined your career? Excuzey moi, my petty cabbage, as far as I know you still have a job. Do you not? Whereas, I am on my way to the cutural breadlines. Am I not? And all because I went to so much trouble for you. Yes?”
Eyebrows disappeared into ballcap, Katherine examined him with disbelief, “Oh, you were trouble for me, no question. You got me tied to the wall of a bank, Martin, you got me tied up with that fucking woman in the first place, and then you went and picked a fight with her. D’ you really think she’d have knifed me if you hadn’t gone to all that trouble? Do you?”
“She didn’t knife you,” The sound of his own voice slipped again from memory, became words, sharp, bitter words like ‘doublecross’ and ‘chicken foot’ and ‘dragon’. No! Martin fought for distraction, “It was David Dear who stabbed you in the back, your run-away husb…” The sudden violence of her hand pinning his to the table ensured his agreement to her flat statement that they weren’t going to go there. “Well, she didn’t.”
“She did! Figuratively. Figuratively, hell! She knifed my canvas and she knifed my damned career and you’ve got a lot of nerve hitting on any cultural breadline, you little prick, you’re in advertising, for chrissake, mattress advertising.”
“Oh, I see. How crass of me.” Cold with anger, he wrenched his hand from her grip, “Your damned canvas knifed my career. I quit!”
“What?” His anger startled her, offended her, “What do you mean, quit? How do you figure that? It’s your old man’s company, you don’t even have to show up.”
“You and that woman have ruined me, for chrisake, I’ll never work in that town again!”
“Oh, take a breath, cut the dramatics. You mean Preston? You think she’s important? You know who she is, Martin?”
Popping with frustration, pressing hard into the table edge, he spit each word, “She is the Dragonlady, Katherine. She is almost the Chair of the AGO, Katherine. She went to school with my mother, Katherine. She…”
“She went to school with my mother, Martin. She’s off some farm north of Strawbridge, for godsake. She’s just another redneck gone to town. She went to school in Strawbridge, till she got a lot of money, inherited it, or something, probably killed somebody for it, then she went off to Havergal and learned to be a bitch and never went back. Well, once or twice, I guess, she must have. Bea finally spilled the beans Friday. She screwed up my mother’s relationship with my father. Gran said Bea was always such a Goody Twoshoes it finally drove her nuts. Preston, I mean. Gran too, probably. Anyway, she made up some story about Bea getting pregnant with me just so he’d have to marry her. So he did, and then he walked out. Gran says she’s just a mean nasty bitch. That’s why she did it to me. It’s got nothing to do with you.”
“Fries!” Slammed to the table between them, two heaps of dark potatoes tumescent with gravy slithered and slid from their plates.
“Stay away from me!” Lurching to a huddle in the corner of the booth, Martin cocked a knee to aim a boot heel, “Get back, you pervert.”
Carl shook his head, puckered his lips and blew a little puff of air, “Yadda, yadda, yadda. Why don’t I just put your burgers in a doggie bag and you can fuck right off out of here?” He looked to Katherine, “That be good for you? I’ll dump the fries in a box and you can get Little Buddy out of here before I bite his face off.”
“To tell you the truth,” Katherine reached for the salt, “I’d like to sit right here and eat in comfort. The burgers done? I’ll come get ‘em. Martin, sit up and eat your french fries,” Rising to follow Carl, she threw back a baleful look, “I could just leave you here.”
Martin tucked his leg back, sat up to the table in a sulk and poked at a fry, “D’you own the salt, too, or can other people use it?”
Paul saw that the shed they entered was a workshop walled the length of one side with plank shelves and benches piled with carpentry tools, a line of small-paned windows on the low side made it look, he thought, rather like a hen house, though it smelled of sweet cedar and echoed to their boots on the floor. “Where’s your firewood? You’re not heating this place with hydro, are you?”
“In the shed opposite this one, bush side. Some skink wants a beat-up Skilsaw so bad, let him have it,” Sam flipped the saw’s dangling cord onto the bench, “but he’s not gettin’ my stovewood. Shitter’s at the far end, you drop a load, you carry a load. Insulates the smell a bit, a one-holer on a pit, but there’s enough tilt that side to take it away from the river.”
Paul bent a reproachful look on Brad, “Who sold him the Harrowsmith? I suppose the bath’s heated by solar panel and the radicchio thrives in the indoor hyacinth pond?”
“Suck wind, Magarry. The hot water’s on propane and there’s a window beside the tub. Even you could find your dick. Long as the water’s not too deep.”
“Ah, Sammy, there you go again, attacking a tease with dirty words on the sidewalk. You’re so sensitive. You should put a little grease on your ball bearing.”
“You’re one mouthy piece of work for a skinny faggot, Magarry. You talkin’ Valvoline, or Vaseline?”
“I’m talking raised consciousness, enlightenment, liberation theology, charm, even, Sam. Lighten up. We’re old boys now, men even, too old to be playing this game. If you want to take it out and wave it in my face, go right ahead, but quit talking like such a prick.”
Sam turned on his heel reaching for an object to grip and found the brass handle to the inner door and sent the door flying open with a showy boot, “You want coffee.”
The centre shed was a square, a cube but for the shed slope of the ceiling, a cube not again of lumber, not planked vertically, or horizontally, or even off on a tangent, not the carpenter’s playhouse Paul had expected. Each wall had a door and above, one of the long windows he had seen from the car. His hand still on the edge of the door they had entered, a social anchor, he noticed it was cold and highly painted and it was steel. The walls looked to be of bone, not bleached bone, white and chalky, but old bone long out of the sun, healthy bone the colour of summer flesh and smooth, not the slash and slap of dry-waller’s exhaustion, but thick trowelled and softly glazed. “I’m impressed. I am absolutely amazed, Sam,” The light was strong, velvety and visible in the room. “I certainly didn’t expect this. I was figuring boy toys, all yer huntin’ and fishin’ and fuckin’ gear dumped between a pool table and a bar. I wouldn’t have thought this. She’s beautiful, Sam.”
Hand raised in a sweep of dismissal, Sam changed his mind and extended it to clasp and shake a hand, “It’s been a long time, Paul.”
Picking up a blue enamal coffee pot from the back of a woodstove, Sam flipped the lid and sniffed, “This’s a bit cooked, d’ you need it now, or wait for some fresh stuff?”
“I can wait.” Paul slid himself halfway down a long bench, planted his elbows on the plank table and rested his chin on steepled fingers, feeling quiet and undisturbed, so comfortably at home that he failed to be surprised.
He had wakened late in his old bedroom in his mother’s houseful of furniture, and rolling, cracked his elbow on a chipped birch hi-fi cabinet that still had a functioning AM band and served as a night table, and biting down on a curse, he had whimpered into a rubber pillow. Home again. He was sure that if he opened his eyes, the light falling cold and white through the window sheers onto By Grace are Ye Saved through Faith hanging on the back of the door would give him a migraine. Like pillow covers from Niagara Falls, the plaster chunks of scripture decorating his mother’s rooms had always had for him the air of souvenirs, mementos of old-fashioned wonders, but unlike pillows they gave him no comfort; he’d seen the Falls, but he didn’t know Grace. He had felt his head swelling to a pounding, he could avoid John 3:16 because it hung over his head…gave His only begotten…. Paul invariably read it as woebegotten. Home again. Up, or he’d bury himself in the bedclothes, he’d wallow in venial sin, he’d twist self-disgust into real pain and rise just at sunset wan with guilt. Thy Rod and Thy Staff Shall Comfort…. Get your hands out of your pajamas, get your feet on the floor and go have a leak and a coffee!
Sam dumped the left-over coffee into the sink, and whaling a couple strokes on a hand pump, rinsed the pot with a gush of water, then reached the glass carafe from a brewing machine that stood on the littered counter and filled it with three more crashing strokes of the pump handle. Pouring the water into the well of the machine, he turned his head to where Brad was lowering himself onto the bench opposite Paul, and with a lift of his chin said, “Do that fire before you put your ass down. Put some chunks in and open her up. I can’t be bothered bein’ cold.”
“What’s with all this half dozen of one, six of the other, Sammy, hand pump and Mister Coffee, hot bath but the sink’s not hooked up? What’s with the bush-hippie pump and the Findlay Oval next to the mod cons, you just get lazy halfway though the project?” Paul heard a gasp from Brad, but his fingers might have touched the stove.
Sam paused in his count of spooning, shrugged and scooped four more into the filter, slipped it into the machine and flicked the switch before he turned again with a look of dignity and raised eyebrows, “You know about choice, Magarry? You’ve heard about choice? These are choices, Magarry. I’m surprised you don’t recognize post-modern aesthetics when you see ‘em, thought you were the uptown guy with all the big city boy shit right there at the tip of your prick, you should know this stuff. This’s the edge, man, this’s state-of-the-art country living on the fine blade, this ain’t some hippie shack down a dirt road full of middle-aged amnesty dodgers suckin’ dope over the diaper pail, baby, this’s yer fully-functioning ecological elegance. Fuck, Suzuki’d stick a seal on this place. It’s a plan, man, place almost drives itself, but you got to be seasonal, use what you’ve got when you got it. Can’t steal hydro in the summer when the boys’re out on the lines, so I’ve got one of those little propane burners there,” He stuck a thumb at the counter, “Under those pots there, cause you don’t want to fire up that big mother in the heat. D’ you open that draught?” With a quick look at Brad, “That wood box empty?”
“Yes, sir. No, sir. Jesus! Free me, Mister Lincoln. Place almost drives itself, my ass! Who split all that…”
“Yah, yah, step into the shed and fetch us some beers while this coffee drips, punk.”
“Y’ know, there are times, Sam…” Brad’s voice was clear. He swallowed, “You shouldn’t always…”
“What I shouldn’t? You gonna make strange here in front of company?” Sam raised his eyebrows and his fist pointed a finger, “You’re nearer the beer and you’re younger than we are. Go.”
Brad slipped a grin, “Yessir,” and made across the room for the woodshed door, “On my way back.”
“Bring six, they’re small. And if you’re just takin’ a leak, for chrissake, do it outside, speakin’ of small,” Sam turned a disgusted look on Paul, “Kid’s weird, won’t piss in the bush, has to use the dumper. Some kind of pecker fixation, I guess. Kinda like you got, only he’s fixed on his own and you’re fixed on everybody else’s.”
Paul took a good long look at his friend, time enough to count to ten, took a deep breath and scratched an eyebrow, “You know, Sam, you’re the one who brings up the subject of cock every five minutes. It’s you who seems preoccupied with the subject. I don’t know, maybe it’s just your gracious social skills. Because I’m the company, we talk peckers, if I was one of the old hydro boys, we’d talk tits and ass. What the hell d’ you talk about when women are here? Sweater patterns?”
“Cunt.”
“Oh, you are a class act, Sammy, the Bannock Rotary doesn’t know what it’s missing, real presidential material. Hell, you’re smooth enough to be in Ottawa, representing the nation.” He leaned back on the bench and blew out his breath, “Can we just leave the dicks down for a while, Sam, talk about something else? Later on,” He showed his palms in an opening gesture, “Maybe we have a beer or two, get a little buzzed, we’ll re-raise the subject, as it were. Anything can happen. But for now, let’s change it. The price of cat food is good.”
Sam’s face remained still as he turned away, bent and reached into the cupboard beneath the sink to rummage out a bottle of rye. With three mugs from the drainboard and the rye in his fists, he poked a wooden armchair to the end of the table with his foot, sat, spread his largesse toward Paul, rested his forearms on the arms of the chair, “You pour.”
Paul looked at the quart bottle, the seal broken, but only the shoulders gone, “Jesus, Sam, you just can’t be nice, can you? Always have to make it complicated.”
“What’s complicated? You fuckin’ ingrate, I’m offerin’ you a drink. You don’t want it, fine.”
“Oh, sure, and I have to decide how buzzed we get and when the subject gets raised again. Right?”
Sam cocked his head with mock dignity, “Excuse me, but I understood we changed the subject. You got some kinda fixation, boy? You got a lot of nerve bad-mouthing my social graces. Would you just pour the damned bottle!”
Paul did, half mugs, and slid one over, “Here’s at you, Sam.” He raised his cup of rye.
Sam lifted his and smiled, “At you.” He swallowed, “You still paintin’ pictures?”
The whisky stripped the hairs from the back of Paul’s throat and landed on its back in his belly; winded, he puckered his lips and breathed carefully through his nose. Sam watched and swallowed twice from his own mug. Paul sucked a little air and spoke through the pucker, “It’s been a while.”
“You quit?”
“Raw whisky, yah.”
“I’m talkin’ about pictures.”
“I’m not.”
Sam flexed his fingers, nodded his head, “You didn’t drink in the city?”
“Ohhh, yah.” Paul was beginning to warm, “Lots to drink in the city. Too much to drink in the city. Too much to drink is why I’m not there. But not straight whisky. I wouldn’t be there, or here. Just too many places to get drunk, you’re on your face in no time. You have to thin it out. Problem is, I’m not a safe drunk anymore. Lots of people can get by on a buzz, but I have a hell of a time not buzzing right over the edge. I get a thirst on, I drink. I get chatty, I get thirstier, I get drinkier and thump, I’m offside and more than likely pissed off. Sometimes I’m just fine, brilliant even, and sometimes I’m a mean and angry drunk, Sammy, and I don’t know why.”
“Something you don’t like about yourself?” Sam spoke a question, but it wasn’t.
“If I thought that was the answer, wouldn’t I be able to sort it out?”
“Not necessarily, must be lots of things you don’t like. Hard to pick the right one, could be some combination of a whole lot of ugly yous. Might be ‘cause you’re queer, eh.”
“Oh, for chrissakes Sam! I don’t give a rats ass ab…”
“Yah, yah, yah, I’ve heard it all before, you’ve told me before. I heard it under the railway bridge, I heard it in a canoe, I heard it in that fat broad’s kitchen on acid and tequila. ‘Member that? Jesus, she was fat. But, you know, there’s times these days when I get so sick of bein’ dragged around by my pecker that I hate the sight of bacon. And you can’t tell me, doin’ what your doin’, that you don’t get disgusted with yourself. Anyway,” Sam’s shoulders went back and a finger pointed at Paul, “Could be ‘cause you’re gettin’ thin on top there, or ‘cause you’re not paintin’ pictures.”
“I can’t use a brush anymore, Sam, my hands sweat so much I can’t hold on.”
“What?”
“Really. I pick up a brush and sweat pours off my palms. It’s ridiculous. It’s scary.” Paul humped half a shrug, “I don’t know what to do about it.”
“Y’ aren’t dyin’, are ya? Ah, shit…” Sam forced pain and fear into disgust, “You gone and got the big A from playin’ peckers. Fuckin’ asshole!”
“No. Wrong, Sam. I’ve had the tests. I’m clean. And I haven’t screwed around nearly as much as you’d like to think.” Cocking his head, Paul affected a leer, “You like to think about me screwing around?”
Sam affected a blank stare that hadn’t heard, “So, how long you been wet?”
Paul discarded a couple of responses before taking a deep breath, “Over a year. Spring last year, maybe.”
“Like, around Easter?”
“No, Sam, I’m not that twisted.”
“Yes, you are.”
“Well, if I’m that twisted, it’d be real blood, not just sweat.”
“Yah.” Sam accepted that. “So, what d’ you do in the city? Work? Mess around? What?”
“Oh, I did a lot of social services stuff, some really godawful jobs, a Visiting Homemaker for a while. That was bad, going into people’s houses.” Paul sketched a shudder that caught his shoulder blades and turned real, “There are some uhg-ly lives out there. One or two weren’t so bad; an old Russian woman, Missus Becta, she was okay, fun to take shopping. But usually there’s some streak of really weird, mean shit going on.”
A fumbling at the woodshed door turned Paul’s head to watch Brad, the necks of six beers in his fingers, a thin split of kindling gripped in his teeth, kick the door to and trot across the room.
“There was one place, woman spent her life in bed bitching because her heart’s on the wrong side. Born with it over here,” Paul pointed, “Instead of here. Twenty-four hour a day bitching. Nobody ever did anything right, far as she was concerned. Everything she told you to do just made the place a worse pigsty. God, that was gross!”
Thumping the beers to a stand on the table, Brad made his eyes round at the bottle of rye, nodded at Paul and dropped the stick of wood from his teeth, “Jeez, depressing, eh? Imagine not bein’ able to think to yourself, ‘Well, I may be a bitch and the house looks like shit, but hey, my heart’s in the right place’.”
Sam made his face innocent and spoke with a wheedle, “And would you, Brad, care for a cup of fresh coffee?”
Startled, Brad peered at him, swung his head around to look at Paul quizzically and swung back to Sam, “Are you being funny? You are, aren’t you? You’re actually trying for laughs. Well, well, this is a special occasion,” He beamed a big grin and reached for the rye, “I’d better have some of this then, there’ll be toasts.”
“You’ll be toast, if you don’t sit down and quit fartin’ around.” Sam missed a swat, “Pour it and park yer ass, Paul’s tryin’ to tell a bear story.”
“It’s no bear story, Sam, just where I’ve been. You asked.”
“Sounds like a bear story to me.”
“The bear story is that I quit my job, came back up here and I’m stuck in my mother’s house. That’s the bear story. Nothing I did in the city’s as scary as that.”
“Well, it’s the times, isn’t it?” Brad leaned in and snapped a beer cap, “I mean, we’re into a depression, eh, no matter what they call it, it’s a pothole and it’s gonna play hell with your shocks. I know I have t…”
“Will you shut the fuck up.” Sam snatched the open beer, took a hard swallow and passed it to Paul, “You and that shitbox Camaro… If I have to listen to one more car metaphor, I’m gonna tie your tongue to the tailpipe and take a run up to…”
“Oh, it’s metaphors now, is it? The Literate Salmon,” Brad threw a wry look at Paul, “He must have read that newspaper he came wrapped in.”
Paul snorted into surprised laughter, “You little tyke!”
“Tyke? Little bastard’s almost as mouthy as you are, eh, Magarry? Wonder where he learned that?” Sam rapped a forefinger on his chair arm, “What I want to know is what you quit.”
“Everything. My entire life. I quit, resigned, walked out, punched out, vacated. Stood on my hind principles and said I’m outta here.” He considered his mug of rye, “Actually, I quit before I got fired.”
Sam pretended patience, “What was the job, Dickhead?”
“At the AGO. Art Gallery of Ontario. I was an Art Guard. It’s kind of like…”
“A security guard.”
“Yahh, but, you know, it’s more…”
“Umhum. Classy. Real class act, Paul. Went right to the top, eh?”
“It was a job, for chrissake, you sound like my mother. I couldn’t stomach the lame, halt and blind anymore.”
“Big career change, babysit a buncha pictures. Fuck, you’re an ambitious little fella. You have to do bedpans with that home job?”
“One guy, yah, in Rosedale, weird. And a couple times for the Telltale Heart. The old guy was regular. They gave me the men, most of the staff were women. And a couple old queens.”
“Jesus!” Sam wagged his head in sympathy, “So, why’d you quit the guard job? It couldn’t have been that bad.”
“Women. A bunch of women got me in trouble.” Paul shrugged.
“Oh, well, there y’ are, eh?” Sam rolled back in his chair and spread his hands wide, “That’s the broads for ya. One at a time’s not so bad, y’ manage to keep the chains on ‘er, run ‘er over the rough spots, but hell, two! I can’t find the door fast enough when there’s two at once.”
“Are,” Brad barked the word over the mouth of the beer bottle, “Are, two women, plural. Plural noun, plura…”
“Shut up, y’ little prick.” Eyes rolling, Sam sneered indifference from Brad to Paul, “Are, two.”
“Arr, matey!” Giddyness from an empty stomach needed beer and Paul waggled his fingers at Sam as he reached for a fresh one, “Yoohoo, Pirate! Are you talking sex, or is this a social phobia of yours, Sam? I find it really hard to believe you’ve never done the…” Paul hinged the palms of his hands, “…sandwich thing. You’re a natural, couple pieces of white broad, salmon salad, brown broad for fibre, hell, salmon loaf with mayonnaise… Or, are you saying that two women together can defend themselves from your basic male pig personality?” He prodded the tabletop with a finger, “Because that I’ll believe. I’m not sure about the sex part.”
Blowing a breath of exasperation, Sam bent a look of disgust on Paul, “Y’ just can’t lighten up, can you? I was talkin’ about women in bunches. Okay? Something I know something about. Okay? It’s not all that hard keepin’ one woman occupied, specially if she likes yer crank, but you get two of them together and all of a sudden they’re busy. That’s all I’m tryin’ to tell you. It was you said a bunch of women got you into trouble, and I was just tellin’ you that I don’t doubt it a bit. Now, will you get on with it? Were they tough girls?”
“Oh god.” Spinning images in the back of his eye stabbed at his temples and sent the rye awash in Paul’s belly__ brick red and rubber black dissolving in tiny apple reds and purple blush, sky light flashing silver curves up a Mercedes hood whipping wind into unfurling capes and shawls, brazzen hair, silk carpet pursed, pursed lips kissing, disapproving, heels striking stone, rubber heels, spike heels, stabbing fingers, nicotine yellow jean jacket__ “Oh god…” Paul slid the cool beer bottle beside his nose, “There was this pissed punk stumbling around the driveway and I… Well, it was my job, so…”
“Where, Paul? Where the fuck’re you talking about?”
“Work, the AGO, the Gallery! I was at work, for godsake, gimme a break, it only just happened. I’m still…”
“When?”
“Jesus, just this Friday. I haven’t even thought about it yet, so shut up and let me tell you. Okay? The Blake show’s up, super busy, everybody wants to see the Blakes, and I was…”
“Blake who?”
“Fuck, Sammy!” Squeezing his eyes, Paul stretched his mouth in a silent scream, stopped, took a deep breath, opened his eyes and spoke flatly, “William Blake, late eighteenth to nineteenth century English painter, good draughtsman, bit of a weirdo. Poet, too. Didn’t we do something like ‘Tyger, tyger burning bright’ one year in school, Sam? Grade nine? Remember grade nine, Sam?”
“Yah, yah, you mighta learned a cute poem,” He turned a heavy head to Brad, “I was busy gettin’ laid that year.” And turned again, “So, what’d he paint, this Tiger Blake guy, daisies and kittens, or tits and ass?”
“Oh, lots of tits and ass, Sam. Wrapped it all up in religious allegory, mysticism. Painted down Bible stories and bits of mythology, scraped the barrel for all that end-of-the-century decadence kind of thing, angels and monsters all sweatin’ it out. Some of it’s pretty sexy, and the colour’s nice. Kind of like comics.”
“So,” Sam tugged at the story with a pretense of patience, “You were at work. And then..?”
“Okay, so… I was working Casualty – that’s what we call the drive-up door, where the sticks and wheelchairs get dropped. Yah, the lame and halt,” Paul shrugged, “Eh, I know where the brakes are. Anyway, it was nuts, busiest I’ve ever seen, and then it broke just before three, only lasted about half an hour, but I got to step out for a smoke. Speaking of which…” Before Paul’s hands could reach his pockets, Brad lobbed a pack of cigarettes onto the table and followed it with the flick of a lighter. “Uum, thanks. So, there was this drunk with a bad shag…” He waved a hand at Brad, “Some are worse than others, at least you’ve got good hair. So, he’s pissed and lost and bumming smokes, alone and broke in the city, getting scared and about to hit TILT, do anything for a smoke and a beer and a smile, lost if he does and lost if he doesn’t. You know…” Paul let his focus rest on Brad’s shoulder, “Y’ know, if all the asshole sportifs who go white-water rafting and kite-hanging and Amazon hiking to get in touch with their inner strengths, or clean their chakras, would just empty their pockets and hit the streets for a weekend, they’d find their inner child real fast, and it’d probably need a diaper change. Assholes wasting money on virtual reality, when real life’s cheaper. What do you do, anyway, Brad?”
Brad had been born into humiliation. Old Bruce, his dead dad, had come by birth to a lumberyard which he’d never quite earned in his own father’s lifetime and which he drank into debt thereafter. Bruce’s wife did the books and rescued the house when a cheap-spruce and dry-wall franchise bought him up and put him to filling the nail bins. And Bruce poured nails into paper sacks and beer into himself and something always poked through and scratched. His liver went, and with it went all that was left of pride. His widow went on sleeping with the Accounts Manager once a month and helping out in the busy season.
“Talk about life bein’ cheap!” A snorting Sam delayed Brad’s answer, “Punk pulls his pecker for Cashway.”
“I drive truck for Cashway.” Brad pretended to ignore Sam, “Delivery.”
“Drives around pullin’ his pecker for Cashway. Look at him,” Sam waved a hand, “Prime beef in tight-ass jeans and busted down boots,” affected a mocking drawl, “Oh Ma’am, just deliverin’ yer screws, Ma’am. Sure you don’t need a plank, Ma’am?”
“You are so full of shit, Sam. Once, I got lucky. Maybe twice.” The edge of a malicious grin betrayed the truth of Brad’s modesty.
“You don’t suppose he’s jealous?” Paul asked.
Sam snorted, “What, motorin’ back the roads in somebody else’s truck, burnin’ somebody else’s gas, bangin’ somebody else’s woman? Damn right I’m jealous. Like bein’ one of those California poolboys, just drivin’ from housewife to housewife. They keep sayin’ our future’s in the service industry. Hell, I thought that’s what I’ve been doin’. I built three decks, a dock and a couple cottage roofs this summer, and all I got was one lousy blowjob. Good pussy’s gettin’ harder to come by all the time, you know. Population’s aging, eh?”
Paul wouldn’t meet Brad’s eye, “Is that the reason, Sam?”
“Fuckin’ A. It’s this babyboomer generation thing, they’re all gettin’ past it, eh.”
“They are, Sam?” Brad didn’t dare meet Paul’s eye.
Sam wiped the air with both hands, “Hell, the women out there, they’re old, lads. All busy havin’ hot flashes and drinkin’ that herbal shit, worryin’ about which way their tits are hangin’, tryin’ to figure out how to get rid of the old man and keep the house now the kids are old enough to operate the can opener, they haven’t got time for a fuck. Or else they wanta know you first, and I haven’t got time for that shit, too busy makin’ a livin’, I’ve gotta get their goddamn dry-wall hung before the old man comes home and starts bitchin’ about how much it’s costin’ and how it’s takin’ too long. Jesus! Assholes think they’re fuckin’ carpenters ‘cause they read the fancy tool magazines when they’re takin’ a shit. They wanta know how many studs you used in the wall, how wide’s yer centre? ‘Cause some asshole-buddy with a gold-plated tape measure says twelve inches is best. And what’re you doin’ nailin’ that drywall? Screwin’s the way to go. They’re all fixed on their dicks. And every word he says, the old woman gets a little redder in the face and you know she’s thinkin’ how she just blew the chance to find out if your dick’s bigger’n his, and then she tries to shut him up and he sees her gettin’ all nervous and gets all suspicious and starts addin’ two and two and gets twelve inches again – which is why he’ll never be a fuckin’ carpenter – and his mouth gets mean and he decides he’s gonna finish the job himself. Fuck, I’m the one keeps gettin’ shafted, figure they don’t have to pay me ‘cause the job’s not done.”
“Seriously? They give you the boot and don’t pay you?” Paul was genuinely shocked, “How the fuck they get away with that?”
“‘Cause they know I don’t have the permits for doin’ their goddamn plumbin’ and wirin’, they couldn’t afford it if I did. So, what am I gonna do, call the cops?”
“So, what, you just keep getting stiffed? You can’t do anything about it? How the hell d’ you keep all this…” Paul waved a hand at Sam’s life.
“Ask him about the bills for materials.” Brad was obviously controlling a grin.
“What? So, they have to pay the yard bill before I pick up a hammer. So what? I’m not that stupid. I mighta been once – that prick Fadder – but not twice. They can try fuckin’ me over for the labour, but they’re not gonna screw around with my credit.”
Brad gave him a dry look, “That’s not what I mean, is it?” He caught Paul’s eye and swept a hand at the walls about them, “Two by sixes on twelve inch centres, unhuh, four inches of foam and pink fibreglass, lath and real plaster.”
“I thought it looked real.” Paul wagged his head, “Sealed up tight. The steel doors’re a nice touch, too.”
“Unhuh. Nothing but the best for Sam. There’s more lumber and insulation, miles of wire, packed in there, than all the other walls in this whole neck of the woods put together. Lots of hollow walls out there.”
“You sly bastard,” Paul nodded a long look at the walls and turned to Sam, “And they don’t notice, they don’t try holding you up over the bill?”
“Oh fuck, they all whine, but they’re all hot for house beautiful at that point, and when I tell ‘em the bill for labour’ll be cheaper, they piss right off. And then, sure enough, soon as the real shit work’s done, soon as they start thinkin’ about me bein’ there all day with the wife – It’s costin’ too much, it’s takin’ too long, and hell, she can do the compound, sand ‘er down, slap on some paint. What the fuck she do all day with the kids in school anyway? So, I just make damn sure I’ve got me a box or two of nails and a good saw blade right from the get go.”
“Snort.” Brad said.
“Yah, so? Maybe a few sticks of wood, nothin’ greedy, just sorta what’ll be owed about the time he starts addin’. They’re all fuckin’ snakes, it’s the only way to deal with ‘em, get a stick.
“That weasel snake, Fadder, I didn’t see him comin’. Stupid. I figured his wife was such a dog and he was such a dumb fuck, he’d piss on his own foot before he’d call me off. Stunned bugger decides the wife looks like Madonna, he probably had the magazine upside down, and I know I’m about to hear how much it’s costin’, and how long it is and how thick it is and how much she likes it, just as soon as Fadder comes off shift. And I’ve been a little back behind myself, takin’ it easy, lots of labour on this one, a little forgetful about the bill for all this fancy floorin’ I’m layin’ through the bedrooms and into the bathroom. Old Fadder was probably stoppin’ at the beer store for the gas to get home, so I put a couple cracks in the gasket on his shitter before I put the last of the floor down. Oak tongue ‘n groove, inch and five eighths. Set ‘er real tight.”
“You bear!” Paul’s voice was round with awe, “And then he chased you off?”
“Oh, I left as slow as I could, drank his beer, he was so busy playin’ with his new leathers he forgot I was there. Asshole drove a beat-up pick-up and went snakey for straps and buckles, redneck gets a wardrobe. Jesus. I’ve got a beautiful set of chisels he lost. Man’s a threat to himself, like you said, pissed and lost and hittin’ TILT. Buddy’s lucky he’s got that ugly wife, a man needs a dog.”
“How long you figure the gasket held? When was this, anyway?”
“Couple years back.” The raised fingers of Brad’s hand caught Sam’s eye, “Four?” Thumb waggled. “Five? Christ. Rabbit on a run, eh?” Sam sighed and took a slow swallow of rye, “I figure that underlay was soaked with Fadder shit in about a week. Dumb fucker let it go six months, had to rip the whole sucker out and start over, and the stink’ll never be out of those joists. Hah! Don’t mess with the Indian.” Sam’s right fist gave a ceremonial pound to the table.
“You are a beast, Sammy,” Paul shook his head in admiration, “But how’s all this relevant to you not getting any pussy ‘cause it’s all weatherbeaten and preoccupied? What’s your problem? Aren’t you leaving one detail out of your theory, Geronimo? You too are just another old boomer. It’s the numbers, Sammy, we all have to worry about which way it’s hangin’, and whether or not we’ve started to leak. We’re not golden anymore. Well, I might be, but you sure as hell aren’t. Still, there must be some young stuff out there fluffy enough to soak up your manhood.” Paul swung to Brad, “Chicks still exist, don’t they?”
“Oh, yah, there’s always chicks.” Brad caught his own slurring esses, “There are.”
“See? So why not chicks, Sam? They go too fast for you?”
Black eyes boring into Paul’s head, Sam sucked in half a cigarette and blew boils of smoke from his nose.
Unperturbed, Paul sipped rye and washed it with beer, “Even the beer commercials go too fast for me. You don’t want chicks, do you?”
“Look, Magarry, it may not mean a lot to you, proof against pussy like y’ are, but a chick’s a scary thing. Y’ bust ‘er, y’ buy ‘er. Next thing you know, you’ve got a bitch at yer heels and a yard full of diaper shit.”
“Jesus, Sam! Doesn’t have to be that bad.”
“Doesn’t have to be. That’s yer worst case scenario, though, a houseful of rugrats and no plumbing. You know that diaper pail aroma? That’s yer starter smell, comes with yer starter home. Randyman special. Needs work. The ad says it all. I’ve seen it.” Sam turned out empty palms, “That’s chicks.”
“So, you’re not considering marriage as an option, I can see that, but, oh my, you’re so jaded, Sammy, in a provincial sort of way.”
“He’s coarse, that’s what Marcy says he is.”
“Oh, Marcy, fuckin’ Marcy!” Sam glared at Brad, “Your sister the girl guide, what’s she know about anything, alway kept her tits in her sweater.” He glared at Paul, “What d’ you mean, provincial?”
“Ohhh, Sam,” His elbows on the table, Paul dropped his head into his hands, “You are… the most… unreconstructed yahoo… You know, the world’s not limited to this side of Apsley, Sam. There are other ways to live.”
Sam spoke without a second thought, “Like livin’ with your mother, Magarry?”
Nausea bloomed in Paul’s stomach with the feel of a rotten melon collapsing in hot sun, his fingers blindly sought the ashtray to drop the cigarette which threatened suddenly to unplug his boiling gut. Slumping into the table, laying a hand over his eyes to hide the light, he looked to his breathing until he could speak, “It’s true. Oh God!” Taking his hand from his eyes, he waved it at Sam with a rueful smile, “I apologize. Sorry, your life’s your own, not my business. It’s just… I guess I’m just glad to see you, is what it is, and…” His fingers worried his upper lip, “…and… you know…”
Sam knew what his own feelings were, but he was afraid they were leftovers from his storybook childhood, his adoptive past of Scrooge, Lassie and Sammy Salmon. He was certain his sentiments weren’t Indian enough, probably not even Manooth-Irish enough, and he had constantly to battle for firmer ground, or thicker bush, “Let’s go shoot something.”
Brad pressed his hand to his mouth, hard, trying not to spray the table with a mouthful of whisky.
Paul picked some sleep from the corner of an eye, flicked it from his thumb and sighed, “I don’t know why I bother.”
“It’s cause you’re a meddler, a shit-disturber, always have been, y’ little wanker.”
“Bullshit, you’re the one who always gets in the deep doodie, not me.”
“Tell me about it. Whenever shit happened, you were always somewhere else, weren’t you?”
“I got it on me a few times, Buddy!”
“Yah, but not nearly what you deserved.”
“You’re both brats, the pair of you,” Brad had managed to swallow, but had to cough off the fumes, “You always have been. You think with a name like mine I don’t know a brat when I see one? You’re the ones called me Brat in the first place and I’ve been watching you over and over again all my life, and you’re both shit-kickers. I’ve seen you. Neither one of you’s a real redneck, but you know ‘em so well you do a damned good imitation. You’re worse than the real thing.” He blew a drag of smoke into the air, “I don’t know, you’d think maybe it’s something in the water, but I drink it and I’m certainly not you guys.”
Paul and Sam swung their heads from Brad to each other and stared. Paul finally raised his brow, “So, what d’ you wanta shoot?”
While Sam stretched and considered his answer, Paul had a sharp, well-lighted vision, a balanced composition of himself walking the drive to his mother’s house, of iron beds and cups of tea, of sitting around an endless circle of furniture; of himself slowly drying into a curl, a squirrel in a rocker worrying nuts. His blood fell and bounced once from the knees and rose on a shiver to a sight of himself alone in a motherless house, magnificent, generous and proud, sitting around an endless circle of furniture with tea, “Let’s shoot my mother.”
Brad drained his whisky. He lived with his mother. That is, he lived in her house, the bungalow she’d rescued from bankruptcy. He used the mudroom with its toilet and tin shower and big storage cupboards that linked garage to kitchen, and he used the kitchen stairs to his basement bedroom. His mother was quick and he would pass a boiling pot on the stove, a cigarette smoking in an ashtray, the telephone receiver dangling down the wall, and know that she had stepped through the livingroom door at the sound of his approach.
Her guilt and his disgust had grown in silence for as long as he remembered. She had never protected him from his father’s rage, the yelling and slapping for his messes and mistakes, and he had early learned to curl himself against the flailing hands. His father had never charged his mother with her infidelities, had never raised his voice and hand to her.
Brad had reasoned that Old Bruce drank to drown the pain, for how could he not know, in a town the size of Bannock, where his wife was and who with. But how explain the choice? Injury, impotence, queerness, disease, madness, had all occured to Brad. Cowardice, he decided at fourteen, having raised his own fist in the face of a tirade that spluttered to a whine. He claimed the mudroom and basement then, pissed out his territory.
And yet, why cowardice? His mother was no scrapper and half Bruce’s size. Afraid she’d leave? Who’d know? The four of them, for Marcy’d been hiding, first with her dolls, then with her books and guitar in her bedroom till she escaped to the world – packed and never came home from the prom – the four of them had come to do their own feedings and cleanings and washings, mostly done in silence, the clatter of a spoon, thump of the dryer, gush of water in the plumbing the only sounds in the house. And Marcy’s flight had simplified the arrangement, for Bruce moved into her old room, Brad bought Mister Coffee and a microwave for his basement, kept his beer in the furnace room and learned to like the temperature. He realized that the answer was love the day they buried Bruce, so he went on living with his mother, “Let’s shoot mine,” he said.

Sam’s consideration had progressed from a twelve-gauge in Fadder’s shorts, through serial killing of skinks, to mass murder, to a Rambo assault with tanks on Bannock itself. He imagined a twelve-point buck and fish in a bucket; he saw buzzards and dirtpigs hanging from fences; he saw himself in feathers and leathers, with one smooth pick at a bowstring pin Little Joe to the barn and paint the town with scalps and screech and red-headed women. But the idea of mother-shooting gave him pause.
He made a display of screwing the cap back tight on the rye, “You guys’re such punks. You aren’t up to mother-shootin’. You talk it, but you couldn’t walk it. I’d lay money. What the fuck…” He shoved back his chair and rose with a knuckle thump to the table, “Come on, we’re gonna go shoot some pool. We’ll take a run up to Manooth and put some of the Irish lads under the table, drink ‘em down, or knock ‘em down, however they wanta go. We’ll take their money on the balls and get ‘em feelin’ lonesome and set ‘em up for a fight, let ‘em have a go for the Pope and Billy the Orange. Beats sittin’ around here drinkin’ up all my booze.”
Brad wagged a beer bottle at Sam, “Who the fuck bought…”
“Yah, yah, yah, and you’re buyin’ the first round at the Arlen, too, since you’re so damn efficient at it. Bank the stove and shut ‘er down.” He switched off the coffee machine, “There’s a waste, y‘ piss tanks.”
“You’re the one who broke out the whisky.” Brad scrabbled up the beer bottles and headed for the shed.
“Sure, and we’re gonna go have us a real celebration, let those rednecks know the hottest piece of ass ever to go south of Apsley’s back in the Bun, eh. Those lads could use somethin’ other than their sisters to lay pipe to, Paul, y’ old cocksucker.”
Paul rattled his head and blew howitzer shells from the back of his throat, “Do we call this a date, Sam, or are you just toying with my affections? I think I’d just as soon pass, as get the shit kicked out of me in the Arlen parking lot, if you don’t mind. I know those boys, related to half of them, for chrissake, I’m not sure I want to risk my ass to find out they still think faggots are stove wood. They’re mad enough about Injun rights and gun control, let alone they don’t even need a license to go for me. Your idea of a good time’s about as bright as it ever was, Sammy. You said getting hit hurts a lot longer than it used to, well, getting dead lasts about as long as it ever did, so, I’d as soon drop off in town and go drink tea with my mother, if it’s all the same to you.”
He poked at the ashtray, checking for fire, “But you two lads should slide on up and have a good time, bend a cue, shoot a few elbows, snatch a scalp or two. Just make sure to scamper before they get organized, ‘cause they know all the licks and the runways and the buggers’ll wait in the cold all their lives to bring you down if they think they need to.” Paul tidied mugs from table to sink, checking on empties with a quick drain on each one.
Sam raised long hands in a mocking shimmy and waved the other two in a herd for the door, “Ah, go on with ya, it’s not that bad, I’m just puttin’ the gears to ya, Buddy, really, it’s not so bad, not like it used to be, and you’re right anyways, half Manooth’s Magarrys and they aren’t gonna gang ya, that’d be incest.” He did a big eye roll from Paul to Brad and back, “Mind you, it’s what they know.”
“Jesus, you’re a sensitive shit, Salmon,” Brad closed dampers, glared disgust and shook his head at Sam, “You’re such a gracious host kinda guy. You know? A real Walmart greeter.” Spreading his hands in apology, he offered Paul precedence to the door, “Honestly, it’s not what he says, the place is cool. All the bush bunnies and the beer commercial zipperheads’ve peddled their cute little four-bys back down to the smoke since Labour Day and it’s chilled right down to the locals, and they don’t give a shit who y’ are. They just want out of the house.”
“Just what I said,” Sam threw over his shoulder, keying the deadbolt behind them, “All them crazy Dogan cousins of his fightin’ with the wife, sick of the kids, lookin’ for a stiff one, desperate for somethin’ to take a poke at. Yahoo!”
“Shut up, Sam! You want him to come along, or not?”
The black of night surprised George when he’d been about half an hour on the river. Idling, till his eyes grew focus and silhouettes and stars made sense, he hunted memory to show him the way. That night with Elizabeth, I brought her out here, way down here, and asked her if she wanted to be my wife, and she said, ‘Yes, certainly!’ You reached for her and she… She started flapping her arms around her head and said we had to go back, the bugs were eating her alive. Well, I didn’t get far that night. On the river, either. Been no reason to come down here for a long time, not since the Landing got pumps and the stores opened up in Tier. That long? That’s a lot of your life. Yah, well, I’m back. So, get on with it. George glared at the dark and went into gear.
Brad sprawled in apparent comfort, one arm hooked to his chairback, the other to his beer, his legs claiming territory and his head cocked at ease, but in his gut his substance boiled. He watched Sam line up a shot on a clutch of reds jamming an end pocket and wondered what the fuck he was doing sitting in the same goddam boring bar, in the same goddam boring ass-end of nowhere that he’d wasted twenty-six goddam boring years of his life in. Why? Where’s the romance?
Sam’s shot required a full-body lie the length of the rail, and as his legs were quite long enough, he could manage with only the bridge of his fingers touching the table. Brad glanced at Paul squatting, cue in hand, eyes level to the rail, hard focussed on Sam, and had to admit that it was one of Sam’s most affecting poses; cool as a ballet guy working the bar, hot as Rambo nailing…? Anything… Russians, Arabs, women. Drywall. Where’s the romance?
With no band Sundays at the Arlen, the jukebox was cranked for a running set of white girl blues, and Brad, sucking up a couple deep breaths, mumbled ‘What’ll I do? What’ll I do?’. He understood himself to be dying rather faster than any other of the dozen or so patrons scattered, solitary and clumped, in the dirty yellow pine light of the bar. My insides are rottener than old Joe Snow. Brad saluted the neck of his beer to a muddy old man gumming a smoke and talking to a table in the dark.
It was a hormone thing, a chromosome thing, x, y, too many, not enough, whatever. A certain amount of correction happened at birth; a choice, slight alteration, ever-lasting attention to his testosterone level and the vague understanding that the organs of his body were determined to grow old before their time. His time, anyway. Exact reference to Brad’s condition had always been avoided, especially by Old Bruce, for manly reasons, family pride, and come pubescence, when Brad became aware enough to be horrified with embarassment, he, himself, skillfully manipulated a conspiracy of whispers that reversed his problem to one of excessive virility in need of medical control. It worked. The town, if it had known anything to the contrary, had come to believe him more, rather than less, normal, and the expectations of curiosity seekers had kept his jeans in motion ever since. At Cashway, he’d long suspected that his reputation counted for more than did his efficiency on the job, his touch of dyslexia tending to deliver a load of lumber to a cement mixer, and as much as he wanted to believe in his own myth, he couldn’t disguise from himself the fact that at birth he’d been sexed like a chicken. ‘What’ll I do?’ He watched Sam and sipped beer.
Squatting, eyeing Sam’s one-legged lie, the long washed blue, cowboy-booted, the hard brown arm reaching from rolled plaid cradling the cue like his long gold cock, which Paul imagined erect and hard against his belly, his bent thighs burned and his buttocks stirred and he strained against the seam of his jeans. Dizzy from the plunge of blood, he touched his cue to the floor for balance and slowly drew himself erect, “You still look good face down on a pool table, Sammy. Still got a nice butt.” Posed against his cue, Paul let it rub blue chalk into the black cotton over his left nipple.
Calm as a heron dining, Sam shouldered his stare to take in the fish on offer, “Fucking queer,” delivered flat in recognition, “Always hot for it, aren’t you?”
“Not always enough. And hardly ever at the right time. Nope, it’s just you, Sam. You always did it for me.” Paul caught himself licking his lips and had to finish with exaggerated mockery.
“Hey!” Sam’s head snapped up at the room, “I never did nothin’ for ya. Ya got that?” He didn’t think anybody’d heard, but he felt a very red Indian till his pressure dropped. “I never touched you and you never touched me. Right?” The laugh behind Paul’s solemn face frustrated him, “Right?!”
“Okay, Sammy, whatever you say,” Paul’s right hand slid lightly up and down the taper of his cue, “We’ve never done it.”
“Will you stop that!” Black eyes fierce on the jerking hand.
“Yet.” Paul closed his hand and squeezed.
Sam snapped his shot and the crack of balls fired hard through the bar. The clutch of reds jammed and puckered at the pocket, bounced and rolled idly away; the black spun on itself, trickled and fell with a soft smack into the old leather net. Sam unlimbered, turned with a slow controlled burning and glared at Paul, “I oughta make you eat that.”
“Any time, Sam, any time.” Unable to stop himself, Paul was soaking under the thick cloth of his sweatshirt, he felt headlong and silly and dangerously unafraid and imagined himself sinking to his knees, a hard brown hand at the back of his head… Stop! He focused on breaths from his belly and waited, as if on tiptoe.
Brad was never certain whether Sam had a queer streak in him, or not. He sure likes to brag about all the blowjobs he gets, but all the lads claim that out of habit. More than once Sam had pointed out a nice ass, but Brad figured that was narcissism comparing the competition, besides, nice female ass certainly seemed to be the priority. Then again, maybe that meant old Sam had a thing for nice ass, period. And maybe that meant… See, you just can’t tell about old Sam. I know him and Paul were tight as a boy and his pup when they were young lads, Marcy said, and Paul was always ready to bend over, long as I ever heard, but Sam… Brad took a slow haul on his beer and eyed the two at the pool table. Not that I really give a shit, but right now the two of ‘em are givin’ off enough heat to dry your socks. If it starts gettin’ twisted, I’m out of here.
Bea was busy tidying her tea things to the kitchen. She switched on the harsh florescent, rinsed cup and saucer under the running tap, and reaching for a tea towel caught her reflection in the window. It wasn’t the hair needing a comb, it was the stoop of the shoulders that bothered her. She hoped Anna was in a generous mood tonight, she needed a taste or two of rum for courage. Counter wiped, dishcloth hung, florescent off, she pulled on a heavy old zip-front cardigan that had been her father’s, switched on the yard light, touched the key tied with string in the sweater pocket and stepped out into the night.
George was throttling down, remembering a shallow-backed cove somewhere to starboard, before the lazy bend of the river nicked and notched its way to the bridge. There should be a wharf across the back of it, with a gas pump, the river side of the hardware store.
It was much like he remembered, the wide wharf sagged and the glass cylinder pump had been replaced with a sixties mod pillar of faded turquoise with interior lighting, but it was shut off and chained for the night, if not the season, and so George didn’t see the tip of a low green-painted dock standing out from the head of the cove until a yard light snapped on three heart beats before a good solid kerwhump and the barking crack of dry rotten cedar confirmed it.
When George hit Bea’s dock, he thought right away about publicity, he didn’t like his name in the papers, not even the business section, and she thought about the premium date on her liability insurance, so that neither of them was quite ready for the rush of blood and the silly grins which greeted their mutual recognition.
“Bea McAlpine!” A bit giddy, he realized he was enormously glad to see her, “Pretend you don’t know me.”
“I’ll need to see your driver’s licence.” She didn’t want her premiums going haywire in some whiplash suit. “George…” Her heart went up, “…Preston!” Her heart went down, and continued up and down at a breathless pace.
“I’m sorry about your dock,” He thought she looked one healthy woman, foursquare and zipped to the throat in her old-geezer sweater, “I’ll certainly look after it, have it replaced.”
“No you won’t. What a handsome boat! You’re sure it’s okay? You’re sure you haven’t broken any…?”
“Oh, yah, pretty as she is, she’s built like a bri… She’s just… lovely, she’s lovely.”
“Are you all right? Tie that thing and come up to the light. Let me have a good look at you.” Stepping over to the yard light pole, she heard her own boldness, “A look to make sure you haven’t hurt yourself and don’t know it. Bruises happen…” She managed to bite off, ‘at our age’. She examined the veins on the bridge of his nose, looked for a pulse from temple to temple over the bow of his brow, to his eyes, to his mouth, and away, when she noticed she was holding her breath.
George saw a face with a buttery soft skin. Rich shortbread, he thought, god you’re disgusting. She’s handsome and I’m hungry. Priorities don’t change, they just shift. He wondered if she had anything to drink.
“I’m just on my way to the Rosses’, to the manse to help Anna soak her fruitcakes in rum. I expect you could use some. A drink, I mean, for the shock. Or does that kill you these days? I can’t keep up.” Suddenly flustered, she turned in the circle of light, uncertain, “They’ll be wondering where I am.” I’m wondering where I am! Good God, this man’s wife ruined my marriage, tried to kill me, my whole family. Well, not really, it would’ve been an accident. Yes, but she makes the accidents. Bea’s breath lurched in her throat – You don’t suppose this…? And she stared hard into the surrounding night – Where’d he come from? She can’t be out there. It’s an accident, surely. Exactly. Stop it, you’ll make yourself sick. This’s awful. Why is he here? “Why are you here?”
“I came down for the church supper. I’m alone up on the lake, and I didn’t bring…”
“I said it would happen!” Bea shook her head at the thought of inaccurate signage.
…any supplies, was what he’d meant to say. But did she mean Elizabeth? “I came up yesterday and…”
“And saw the sign and it said Sunday, but not which Sunday! I knew it would happen. I saw it myself and called over and had him change it, Reverend Ross, but not soon enough, obviously.” He must have come up early. And he came alone! Bea felt she could accept responsiblity for his being led astray, “You’d better come along then, you’ll be a good lesson. The Supper isn’t until next Sunday.” Oh dear, he meant food, he didn’t bring food. “There’s nothing to feed you, though I expect Anna could scare you up something if you’re starving.” But he said alone, didn’t he? Did he? “Are you?”
Suddenly weak with hunger, George felt pots of coffee wash through his stomach, “I can’t deny I’ve a hankering for a nice leg and a bit of breast, scalloped potatoes, apple pie.”
“You poor man, Anna doesn’t scare that well, I’m afraid. Cake night, too, she won’t have been near the stove, too busy polishing her crocks, it’s a ritual. I could feed you myself, but…” A man in her house on a Sunday after dark? When you can see right in the windows and the Lettie Girls could be on patrol and… “We’d really best get along to the manse before somebody comes out looking. Bob Ross’s handy enough with a sandwich, has to be, he can tide you over. There’ll be soup, Anna’s good with a tin.”
George was unbalanced. God knew why he’d worn town shoes with leather soles, he’d almost landed on his ass just climbing into the cruiser when he set out. God had known he couldn’t wear mildewed old mocassins to a church do, but then God should’ve known he had the wrong weekend. Shouldn’t He? It’s a worry, I’m just not as alert as I used to be. Bend your knees a bit and put each foot down flat, the dew’s like grease on the grass. It’s the details, I’m slipping on the details, got the pants and the jacket and shirt and tie right, but not so smart about the shoes. To think there was a day when any old boots’d do; walk, kick, run like hell and then go dancing till the band went home. Now I’ve got to plant each foot like a tulip bulb to keep me off my ass. I wish I had a stick. Take her arm. No, she’ll think I think she’s an old woman needs help. She’ll think you’re the one needs a boyscout. I’m going to have to start carrying a stick. You’ll really be old. A swagger stick. Yah, sure.
Bea stumped through the fitful dark of dim village light and tossing evergreens, her fists jammed into sweater pockets, one hand clutching the key, and damned herself for still wearing the frumpy thing, its maroon and grey machined pattern the very essence of old goat, after all these years it should’ve had a decent burial. I must look a sight. At least she wasn’t in her suede pumps with the bit of a heel, bad enough in her lace-up Cloud Soles, she didn’t need to slither into his arms off a wet maple leaf. D’ you suppose they don’t take arms in the city anymore? You don’t see it much on tv, except they’re young and it’s more than arms they’ve got a hold of. Get a grip, you’ll be necking in the church porch if you don’t get straight across this lawn right now! Through the trees and onto the porch and right into Anna’s kitchen with Lizzie Preston’s husband – Oh God!
I might as well’ve phoned Velma and given myself up the minute he hit my dock. It’s only a matter of time, three days and she’ll have a cross raised. Just in time for the meeting. Well, heck, you know, I might as well be hung for the sheep. And Beatrice laid three fingers on George’s handy arm.

Ignored in an unlit alcove, the front door of the Arlen was tight in its long-settled frame, and so little used, parking out behind, that the back door was more the front and the front the back, dank and lonesome except for Joe Snow telling a chair about the monster buck he’d once shot, had once been. And so, the sudden heavy scrape and drag of the opening door turned heads in the bar when Martin, doubt screaming from every nerve end, hauled on the rusted knob and prodded Katherine before him into the dark wet stench of beer, and god knows, probably blood-drenched ozite.
“Now there…” Sam turned from watching Paul rack balls as Katherine strode in pumped with the irritation of Martin’s dragging fumble behind her. “…that there,” Sam stretched himself up the length of his cue, flexed his spine, tossed his braid, “…that is a nice piece of ass!” Paul, bent at the waist to gently lift the frame, saw the pyramid of reds blurr in a split-moment of adrenal gush, before raising his head. Faint hope, Sam was facing the bar, and despite the unlikely circumstances, Paul recognized Katherine right away. He supposed it was the fringe on her cowpoke jacket, there’d been fringe on her dress Friday night. Shit, she’s a stomper, I’ll bet she’s got skinny cigars to smoke upside shots of whisky. What in the name of Sweet Jesus is she doing here? Oh Christ, that dickweed, Martin, too! What are they doing here? Paul almost stepped forward to ask, then thought he’d maybe wait and see.
Katherine made it to the bar, slapped a hand to the gouged pine, “Bourbon, rocks, Jack, if you got it.” And waited till the barman set it before her, “Oh, did you want a drink, too, Martin?” Paying him back for pushing her forward.
Watching her fish a flat tin from her bag, slit its seal with a thumbnail, caress thick foil and slip a rich black twig of cigar through her fingers, Martin shrank inside his clothes, hoping the cold sweat bathing his body wouldn’t soak through and blow his cool. As much as he wanted, needed, a great big vodka and tonic, he wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction. “Gimme a Blue.” Thinking he’d managed that rather well from the bottom of his throat, he snapped his lighter to her cigar and leaned into the bar with what he hoped was style.
Paul’s rush of surprise had ebbed to unease and he found himself backing further into the gloom of the short passage past the washrooms to the open back door.
Sam breaking and running his way through the balls in a grandstanding flurry aimed at attracting attention from the bar, spurred Brad to think he’d best take a leak before things got any more interesting than they already were, and his lazy lounging up from the table allowed him a good look at the strangers in town.
Katherine thought the hard little blond, all boots and blue jeans rising from a chair, wasn’t half bad, “Nice.” She nudged Martin with a stiff elbow.
“That’s a shag!” Martin eyed her from his shoulder with disgust.
“So, maybe that’s the local style, Marty, just the way your little bob is back home. D’ you think?” Her tone told him to watch his mouth, “Anyway, it’s not the hair I’m looking at. Nice little bow-legged walk he’s got there,” Watching him amble toward the back past a pool table, “If it’s nice hair you want so bad, check the size of the braid on Chingasckook over there.”
Sam could feel the heat of eyes on his back, only to be expected from a looker like that, and he swung the butt of his cue at Brad’s passing knees, “She’s hot for it, Brat, she wants my Indian club.”
Dodging the cue automatically, Brad peered at the dimness and asked, “What’d you do with Paul?”
Noticing, Sam shook his head, “Huh, probably cruisin’ the pisser. But hey, I’m serious, she wants me, I can feel it.”
Just for irritation’s sake, “Who wants you, Sam?”
“The one just came in, y’ little skink, she can’t take her eyes off me.”
“I don’t know, Sam, I think she’s pointin’ you out to her boyfriend there, who looks a little tight in the jeans, if you ask me. What I’m thinkin’, she’s one of those truck-drivin’ women, if you know what I mean, Sammy, and they just mamboed into the wrong bar. But hey, I gotta take a leak and I could be wrong. You keep droppin’ your balls and I’ll go hunt Paul.” Ducking a glare and a swinging cue, Brad headed for the men’s room.
Little bugger’s gettin’ scrappy. It’s what happens when Magarry’s around with that smart lip, everybody starts actin’ a little queer. She’s lookin’. She’s lookin’. Sam arched and flowed with the fluid strike of a marten, and pumping, jabbed up through the colours to black, and chalked and walked to the other end to set the woman in the foresight of his finger-bridge and stroked it down.

Brad slapped open the men’s room door in accepted practice, a good loud bounce off the wall tiles preventing any suggestion of lewd and sneaky intent, and although he believed Sam’s perception largely hyperbolic, he wasn’t prepared to discover Paul in any compromising position. There was only Joe Snow telling a urinal about the bear who took his ear and kept it under a rock in her den. Brad pissed and spoke the litany, “Which ear’d she get, Joe?”
Joe took a hand from the urinal to touch his left ear, “This.” And waited for the response of disbelief. The tale of retrieval was often worth a draught. But Brad had paid for the epic of belly-ripped hounds, the marathon chase, any number of times; he’d admired old Clara Snow’s fine mocassin stitching on the clever flap of dry hide, had ordered rounds and wondered, as everyone did, which parts of the tale were real.
Brad jumped to the conclusion, “Good thing your old lady was handy with a needle, Joe.” Zipped, he clapped Joe’s shoulder in a manly way and went looking for Paul. Joe chuckled and nodded and waited for the beer to come.
Having wandered out into the parking lot for thinking space, before proximity could force him to acknowledge Katherine and Martin, Paul considered walking away off down the highway, but the crisp autumn air crept round his collar and his cigarettes were back at the table in his jacket pocket. He kicked at the gravel, rubbed his arms and willed himself to wait patiently for rescue. Maybe the sight of Sam rattling his balls would scare them off. Then again…
What are they doing here? Of all the godforsaken backends of nowhere, how’d they find the Arlen Hotel? Paul felt pursued. But why her? Why him? I’d believe the Bitch Preston hunting me down, she’d exhume you, if she wasn’t finished slapping you. But why these guys, why her? If she thinks that fiasco was my fault, she’s nuts, it wasn’t my party. They’re not following you, you’re paranoid. Oh, yah, sure. Oh fuck, it can’t be him on my tail, can it? He doesn’t even know he wants it. Paul fired another stone off the toe of his shoe and shivered, his only hope was Sam’s obnoxious behaviour.
Brad heard the chuck of a foot in the gravel followed by a whack on dull metal and spotted Paul the other side of a battered half ton. “I wouldn’t let Big Harv catch me wingin’ rocks at his vehicle, if I was you. She may be nine-tenths bondo and chicken wire, but Harv keeps her for love, not looks.” Face tipped to the sky, Brad ambled around potholes by instinct, his fingers busy in pockets for cigarettes and lighter. He tilted his chin at a pale blob of moon melting in a shallow sky. “Thank god she’s dyin’, Sam’s twice the hell when she’s full.” He offered his pack and held out a light.
“Still, eh?” Paul eyed the moon while the smoke slowed his breath and his skin settled down to accepting the cold, “Sammy always went a bit wolf with the moon. Claimed his dick grew hair that needed washing in the juice of virgins. God, he’s twisted! I remember one year we were in highschool I lent him a Mary Renault, one of her goat-god hair-turners; he read the dirty bits and spent every full moon running around the brush up top the Eagle’s Nest, chasing Marylou Oakley till she pooped out and let him do the rude thing on that big knuckle of rock right out at the edge. He wouldn’t wear anything but an old Davy Crockett coonskin cap. Marylou said he was gross and wore her bikini.
“I was supposed to be in on it with him, in charge of research. Meant I had to read all the books and find the dirty parts. And I was supposed to recruit maenads for him, wood nymphs – he kept calling them nymphos – and teach ‘em some kind of ritual that’d whip ‘em into a frenzy, all wild for sacrifice on Sammy’s sword.” Paul paused for a drag and laughed out the smoke, “Jesus, what a flaming ego! I couldn’t ever get him to pay attention to the story-lines of those mystery religions – whose heart it was got ripped out and eaten. None of the other girls wanted to catch Marylou’s reputation, so the two of them howled around on their own till the road froze up and she refused to walk it.” Paul stooped for a stone and winged it high out of the lot, “I went up once. Took your sister.”
“Mars?!” Brad couldn’t help the dismay, “And you?”
“Yup, Marcy and me. I think she went along ‘cause she knew me better than I did. She’s a good one, your sister, she was my best friend, better than Sam was, safer, anyway. Lots of things we didn’t have to talk about, she just knew. I always figured she went ‘cause she knew I had to and I couldn’t do it alone, shouldn’t, maybe. I think she knew how much I wanted Sam and worried I’d be the one, the sacrifice with the ripped out heart. Marcy always thought Sam was more silly than dangerous, but she didn’t trust the mean streak in Marylou, so she said she’d go along and we wouldn’t have to do anything we didn’t want to. She and I could run around and bay at the moon, maybe ambush Marylou, spook Sam. She probably wanted to chase bare-ass over those rocks after Sam as much as I did, but she went with me, she went for my sake and she stuck with me.
“And we did strip down. Sat in the car and thought about it without saying a word, ‘cause I just looked at her and she opened her door same time I did. And we both laughed because it was your mother’s Beetle and we could both see right over the top. We went into the bush with the width of the car between us and kept it there, running for the hell of it. We jumped and swung from branches like little kids, and when we heard a howl above us through the trees, we thought the pack was on us and grabbed each other…” Paul considered the sky again, “Kind of like this, milky, but full. The two of us just wired for the magic fuck of all time, naked as jays, except for my old moccs and your sister in… what d’y’callums? …espadrilles, she was so proud of those things, real Mexican, …and there we were wrapped together like a cabbage roll,” Erupting in a snort of disgust, Paul used a knuckle to check for residue, “I remember thinking I was seriously sick and twisted for imagining a cabbage roll with my meat in the middle. And then we knew it was Sam, up there nailing Marylou one more time, and Marcy and I just sort of unrolled and said how cold it was, and then we went to Hing’s for coffee.”
“Mars, eh? Streakin’ the Eagle’s Nest with you and Sam. Wow!”
“She always knew when to stop. Better than the rest of us ever did, no matter how crazy it got. Acid on the band bus, MDA, Southern Comfort, sex in the church, all of it, she always knew when to walk. And when she didn’t like it anymore, she was gone.”
“Mars, eh?” Brad shook his head and his soft smile turned lonesome and he looked to the ground, “She could come back, now Old Bruce’s gone.”
Paul took advantage, “I need you to help me with Sam.” Brad’s look came up skeptical, puckering with disappointment. “No, no, not that! I just told you I stopped trying that night up the Eagle’s Nest. You’re not a good listener.” Brad blinked and rattled his head. Paul grinned, “I’m sure that’s what I said. Anyway, what I need is to sic Sam on that pair that came in the front door,” Answering a quizzical eyebrow, “I know them, but I don’t know why they’re here and I don’t want to deal with it. Sam has to spook ‘em out of here fast as he can. I can’t believe they’re following me, but I don’t know how the hell else they’d find this place. It’s got to be coincidence. I just don’t need it. I don’t want to know. You‘ve got to get Sam to do it. Please.”
“You in trouble?”
“I sure as fuck hope not,” He said on a deep sigh that turned into a splutter of exasperation, “Fucking people! Bad enough when they’re tryin’ to get at you, you know they’re out there, you can turn off the lights and hide on the floor, but this shit… Fuckers just walk in and catch you with your fly down on a bad-hair day.”
“They’re following you, but it’s an accident they found you?”
“I don’t know. It’s probably an accident they’re following me.”
Brad closed one eye and cocked his head to aim the other, “I don’t think I follow you.”
“Smart ass.” Paul raised a fist in mock threat. “She’s Katherine Bailey. She’s a painter. He’s Martin… something, I don’t remember, he’s like her agent. They’re the reason I’m back here.” He spoke in a rush ahead of a bloom of nausea rolling up out of his gut, and he turned in time to barely miss Brad’s boots with a sour stream of beer and rye and bile. “Jesus wept!” Paul spat and fought his gorge, “Sorry.” He scrabbled in his pockets. Brad stepped to the fence, snatched up a couple of burdock leaves, slapped them for dust and offered them.
“Thanks,” Paul wiped his mouth, the leaf hairs scouring and tickling, “I don’t know what that’s about.” He dabbed at a wet spot on his left knee, inspected his toes.
Brad figured it was probably about hard liquor on an empty stomach, but he needed facts, “Are they queer? She looks a little… you know.”
A snort and a chuckle and Paul tossed the dock leaves into the bed of Harv’s truck. He waffled a hand in the air, “She just got dumped by her husband – friend of mine, worked with him once, a group home, another thing I did – anyway, he moved out on her. I don’t know, maybe she is. I heard she was wearin’ his clothes, but the other one, Marty the Agent Guy, dipshit’s definitely a sissy, but I only met him the other night and I don’t know if he knows yet he’s queer. He was passed out in a cheese tray last I saw him.” Paul giggled, his fingers pantomimed a request for another cigarette, “She was wearing a painting at the time.” Accepting a smoke and a light, his humour faded to concern, “I only know they’re trouble, they’re why I’m here. It’s what I was sayin’ back at Sam’s, bunch of women raised hell and I left town.”
“Yah, I remember you sayin’, before Salmon started goin’ on about himself, as usual. So, let me get this straight; it’s not you and him, and it’s not you and her either. Not a sex thing, right?”
“Right.”
“So…” Brad cupped his hands to encourage more.
“All I know is I stood up for her against one major bitch,” The memory of murderous fury in Elizabeth Preston’s eyes coursed a shudder down his back, “Opened my big mouth and you wouldn’t believe what happened. Very possibly blew away her career,” He whistled a falling missile, “Might be why she’s here, lookin’ to blow me away.” Fingers poked into the waist of his jeans, Paul paced three steps out and three steps back, “You might not believe it, but Friday night was every bit as nuts as Orange Day is around here when Uncle Jimmy looses that stupid pack of hounds under the horse, a major fuckin’ disaster. Those people don’t have to carry clubs, they are clubs. A reception in a bank, yet, and believe it or not, out comes the knife. Doesn’t matter, best scotch, best nibbles, worst behaviour I’ve ever seen. Last straw, far as I’m concerned, people think they can buy the right to be assholes, I might as well come back here where they’re free.” Pausing to take aim, Paul scuffed another rock at the pickup.
Though Big Harv and his boys would always accomodate, Brad didn’t feel up to a blood-bath, surely there was a subtler solution, a way out of Paul’s dilemma with a more interesting angle, given the strangers and all, “Is Sam…” He wiggled his hands, unsure of how to say, “Has he ever… You know, done queer stuff?” If he could get enough facts, there might be a way out of this. Anyway, they say information’s power, eh.
“Whew!” Startled, Paul stopped his pacing to eye Brad up and down, “Despite my personal slavering fantasies, to the best of my knowledge, no. I always really figured he’s probably good for the missionary position for about three minutes, slam and bam, as it were, why he’s always lookin’ for more. Critically speaking, not much use in him bein’ queer, not to me, anyway. But, you know, he’s always thought he’s blessed with a golden cock, so he might’ve gone for glory in an uncommon hole once or twice. Never know with Sam, he can be squeamish. You don’t want him hearin’ you talk like that, he will rope you to your tailpipe.” Paul thought to be coy for the fun of it, “You got experience to the contrary? Reason to ask?”
“No!” Brad flushed, “I mean I’m just wonderin’, if you want Sam to chase ‘em off, he’s gonna need a reason.”
“He doesn’t need a reason to be the ignorant hard-on he always is.”
“Not him, you, I mean, you need a reason to get him to do it, something that won’t take all night to explain to him. He’s so righteous lately you’ve gotta give him chapter and verse on every situation, or he thinks you’re settin’ him up, treatin’ him like you think he’s just some dumb Injun, and he gets all ornery and there’s no talkin’ to Mister First Nation.”
“Shit! Why can’t we just leave? You and me, we could just go. He can make out on his own. Take me into town, you can always come back and get him, if you want. I need out of here. Please.”
“Don’t you want to know what they’re doin’ here? Even if it is accidental you’re here and they’re here, how come they’re here? Don’t you want to find out before Salmon puts the run on ‘em? Anyway, you can’t just bugger off ‘cause of them, you belong here.”
“No I don’t.”
“Sure you do.”
“No, I don’t!” But he did, of course, had no choice at the moment, still, he didn’t need to compound that problem by connecting it to these people, strangers really, who’d effectively stuck him with this situation in the first place. He didn’t even want to have to know Brad and Sam, or anybody else here, where Brad was so sure he belonged. What am I supposed to do, introduce ‘em to each other? Redneck, meet… What, City Woman? No, ladies first, so what… Ms. Paintress meet Fundamental Erectus? Closet Case meet Big Harv and the boys? Oh sure, and then we can segué right in to the stompin’ and the scalpin’. “I think I’ll just go sit in your car.”
“Ah, come on, eh,” Brad tried a wheedling grin, “We gotta make our own fun around here, there’s fuckall to see on the satellite. Besides, if you don’t help there could be trouble.”
“You know damned well there’s going to be trouble no matter what I do. Sam’s trouble, she’s trouble, little Marty’s trouble, shit, you’re just makin’ trouble. I’d rather eat my own leg.”
“Well, you can take that attitude if you want, but I’d like to know what the hell else you’re gonna do around here. You just gonna hole up with your old lady? You gotta go out for cigarettes sometime. You want the little kids to point at you, say you’re the weirdo lives with his mother? Hey, I know that crap. Part of the reason I hang out with Salmon, shuts ‘em up when I’m out playin’ with that mean motherfucker. D’ y’ see?”
“What I see’s a Heritage Moment, the Arlen Massacree, birchbark pickups and tire iron tomahawks.”
“You wish.”
“Hah, y’ little brat, you’re right. I wish.” Paul hummed in wry agreement, “It isn’t really that at all, it’s the idea of them all standing around understanding each other. If I hear one more biker say the word beaujolais, I’ll chew his throat out. I don’t want to know more people!”
“Yah, but you can’t really mean that, man.” In a drawl that almost whined, Brad cast again.
“I can so. Let ‘em waste each other, better than wastin’ my time.”
“You could be doin’ it for Marcy’s sake,” He was determined to set the hook, “She kept you from gettin’ hurt up the Eagle’s Nest, maybe you owe her.”
“You weasel! The fuck’s this got to do with your sister?”
“Hey, man,” A big shrug of the shoulders, a wave of indifference, “You don’t see the payback, you don’t see it.”
A long look, a slow smile of resignation and Paul nodded, “Where’d you learn to twist arms so well?”
“Been watchin’ you guys all my life.” Hands in his butt pockets, Brad rocked his body between Paul and the dull light of the Arlen’s backdoor, “Listen, what’d y’ say we tell Sam it’s a set-up right from the start, but it’s you set it up for him ‘cause she’s after his body. You know her from the city and you told her about him, Leaping Salmon, old Trouser Trout, all that shit, the Legend of Sammy Salmon, and she’s tracked him to the waterin’ hole, whatever. See, it’ll save us time not havin’ to convince him it’s not a set-up…”
“Yes, I can see that.” Paul was dry. “So, they’re at the watering hole, and…?”
“Uum… Sam’ll probably go into his cornball, mystic Indian shaman shit, play hard to get. It’s what he does, completely pretends he’s just too pure in the ways of the braves to be after gettin’ laid. Never seen one didn’t fall for it, oldest act in the book, and old Sam can keep it up for so long as it takes for her to make a move and then he’s on her like Jack the Bear. He goes silent Injun on her and she’ll talk, man, she’ll talk at him till she finally says she wants it. And that way we’ll find out why she’s here!”
“Except for the fact that I didn’t tell her about Sam, that she’s never heard of him, or very likely has the least interest in a complete dickhead like Sam, you’ve got a great plan, ‘cause that’s exactly how he’ll behave. But what the hell, who knows? Except for being a hunk, her husband’s nothing like Sam, but I don’t know, there’s the old rebound thing, I guess.”
“Look, if she’s out with this Marty guy and you think he’s queer, then maybe it means she’s out on the prowl, if she just got dumped. Some of them can’t do without it, you know.”
“What d’ y’ mean them, Kemosabe? Speaking of Marty, the hairball in the closet, what about him? He’s just the kind of asshole to fluff out his chest hairs at Sam and Harv and jump up and down on their insteps before they turn him into a handbag.”
“How be if we say he’s an old boyfriend of yours?” Brad almost flinched from the stab of Paul’s eyes, “Well, just a drunken one nighter, not even that, just a quickie in a… Well, we don’t have to say. If you say boyfriend, Sam might scuff up his nice yellow boots, but he won’t thump him.”
“I might like to thump him, myself.” Feeling a sudden cold slap of resentment, Paul snapped up straight, “No, to hell with that! I don’t want anybody thinkin’ that dweeb’s ever been any boyfriend of mine. No, no, no!”
“All right, all right! We’ll tell Sam…… He’s an agent! You said he’s an agent. Remember? Is he? Pictures. So, what’s Sam know? We’ll say he’s a movie agent! Bingo! Lookin’ for talent, scoutin’ for talent, scoutin’ for scouts! Indian stars for heritage moments, yah, lookin’ for the Legend. If he thinks they’re both after his ass, he’ll go so far into mode… Wow! Move over Jimmy Dean. Hello Hollywood!” Resting a hand on Paul’s shoulder, Brad steered for the dull yellow light.
More personality than character, was George Preston’s judgement of the Reverend Robert Ross. Mind you, he was grateful Bob Ross wasn’t a post-modern Man o’ God forever winkling apt little homilies on life’s blessings out of every topic of conversation with all the expertise of a B.A. in sociology and none of the poetry of two thousand years of impassioned metaphysics. On the contrary, the Reverend seemed an old-pattern divine. George wasn’t too sure, he suspected there might once have been fantasies of a Trollope archdeacon – he could imagine pretensions to a black shovel hat in the thin, high-bridged nose – but the badly knitted waistcoat and the undisguised pleasure at the sight of company suggested a Pym vicar, or a friend of Miss Marple, certainly there was little appertaining to salvation and much to suit the small pleasures of an undemanding pastorate.
The punchbowl, for instance, a chased silver dish that could have been an extravagant porringer, or a lawn-bowling trophy, which was introduced, alongside a boiled kettle, a pair of lemons, a little wooden box of dried spice and a small jar of clear honey, on one worn, oil-clothed end of Anna’s kitchen table. That punchbowl wasn’t really, George didn’t think, standard religious practice. Drinks, well sure, the clergy liked a highball. He knew a bishop who thrived on margaritas, whole teaching-orders with better cellars than sense, and he’d never met a minister with a line in the lake on a hot summer’s day who’d say no to an old cold beer. But the crushing of cloves, shaving of cinnamon, slicing of lemons, brewing of hot water and honey definitely didn’t interface with the anorexic social life he was accustomed to. In consequence, George was charmed.
Anna had tittered out of the gloom of a high-boarded pantry in the far end of the rackety kitchen for introductions. A swath of muslin in one hand, a heavy pair of steel scissors in the other, a look of expectant worry on her tapered, mole-shaped face, she had managed several nods and a repeating murmur, although George noticed that her eyes avoided focus and her busy lips never opened. Waving her laden hands in excuse, snuffling a special murmur at Bea, Anna escaped back to the chore in hand. Bea glanced at the men, lingered for an imperceptible sigh and followed to assist, “I’ll go help with the shrouds.”
“I wouldn’t have thought her a nautical woman, our Beatrice.” Robert Ross made the bad joke to cover his affection for the one woman in the village who was kind to his wife. His opinion that she still had a good pair of legs was confirmed by George’s following eye.
“Well, I just met her on a dock, I don’t know whether that makes her nautical or professional.” George winced, appalled by his own worse joke. You’re a sexist pig, she’s a good woman, this man’s a priest and you’re gross. Couldn’t resist, it was too easy. You’re a profoundly shallow man. Unhuh. “That was unnecessary, I should apologize to her, and I certainly do to you. It was cheap.”
“Oh, not that much cheaper than mine. Rather more brass, perhaps. Are you a sailor, then?”
“Guess not, I plowed into her dock in the dark, looking to tie up back of the Hardware.” George heard the John Waynish tone tumble from his tongue and couldn’t stop himself, “Came downriver for the Church Supper, Reverend.”
“Oh Dear Lord!” Bob Ross appeared genuinely anguished, “You’re my fault! She said it would happen. She warned me. I changed the sign, but too late, obviously, too late! I do apologize, Mister Preston, I do. I sincerely hope you haven’t enormously inconvenienced yourself because of my foolishness. But you have! You’ve hurt yourself, have you? No? Well, that’s good luck. And the boat, is it drowned? Just a bump? Lucky again! And Bea’s dock, it survived? Oh, bad luck!”
George switched from a shake to a nod, “You might say. Tore off a good piece. Totaled, I expect. Offered to put her in a new one, but so far she says no. Says it was past its time, no proper footings, no steel, just cedar and rock cribs, all rotten. I’ll pull it out for her, at least. Should’ve been done long ago.”
Robert Ross was a professional listener, and since there wasn’t a whole lot to do in the way of parish business, he was good at it. He was quite sure he had a horny old man in his kitchen. “You’re handy then, are you?” Though he didn’t really think the man looked it.
“At the moment I’m up at…” George was distracted. My god, it is up! I’m horny. Well, not up, but heavy. Son-of-a-gun, what brought this on? Handy? I used to be damned handy with… Stop it! Back to the matter in hand. Hah! Hand. STOP IT! “I’m up on the lake.” Will it still be up… can I keep it up? Why? You’re not twelve. Oh, for godsake! “Came up yesterday morning.” It did too, didn’t it? That’s what started this whole business, rolling on to Elizabeth first thing yesterday morning. That was rare and foolish. That was a piss hard-on, but it was worth a try. No it wasn’t. Probably what this is. Oh no, this’s blood, I can make it move. You piss your pants, you’re going to look a damned fool. Change the subject.
“What exactly is your wife doing with all that cloth?” George made himself see the heavy old, black-handled, long, thick-bladed shears that Anna had dangled from one hand. That helped. “I take it that’s a shroud, or will be, but what exactly is it that’s in need of a shroud? Since I assume we’re not really talking boats here.” And George pictured a cadaver, flaccid, livid, laid out on a pantry shelf. Gone down.
“Her cakes, she anoints her fruit cakes, wraps them up in a winding sheet and awaits the Coming of The Child.” There, that’s better. The flush of blood appearing to drain from his guest’s face, the Reverend felt a little safer. He didn’t need some mad old bull with a priapic problem stumbling over the crockery. He didn’t feel up to defending the womenfolk and he’d neglected to get a refill of his nitro tabs, had only one left, so he was glad for both their sakes that he wouldn’t have to make a Christian choice. “I was wondering, though, if you’re handy with a hammer, carpentry. Are you a marine contractor, or something, a builder? It’s late to be up on the lake.”
“Oh.” The man means useful. At the moment, no. What he means is: Who are you? What d’ you do? And why are you here? I know that. He’s being indirect. He’s being kind, he probably thinks you’re some kind of con artist. D’ you think so? Just answer the man. “No, I have to admit I’ve never been much use with my hands. Though I had a light touch with a joystick once, but I think that was more nerve and gut than hand and eye. And since then there’s usually been someone to do it for me.”
George expected that that sounded conceited, pompous, but he found himself struck by a sudden desire to avoid saying, ‘I’m a banker. I’m the Very Active Chairman of the Imperial Trust. A Modern Major-General.’ Certainly it was his role to announce himself, modestly, of course, with pride in The Institution. He was a leader, after all, up-front, nothing held back, no reason for hesitation, nothing shady here, TRUST ME. His job was confidence, not handicraft. But at the moment he didn’t care, he wished he was handy with a hammer. He was sure the Reverend Ross wouldn’t be any less agreeable. You can’t lie. I’m a banker. You can’t lie. “Mister Ross, have you ever spanked your wife?”
Startled, George didn’t know why he’d just decided to retire from his career, but he recognized that he had. It wasn’t a responsible thought, not even sensible, so he didn’t want to think about it right away, he wanted to let it lie still, see what it felt like. He thought it best to confess to something else and do a little time for it, “I spanked my wife yesterday morning and then I ran away up here. I’ve never done that before.”
“Which, run away, or spanked your wife?”
“Either.”
“Did you hurt her?”
“Her pride, certainly, but maybe a whole lot worse. I knew the minute I did it, it had never happened to her before. I don’t know what she’ll do. It’s why I came away, really, give her time to decide. I lost control and I’m ashamed of myself. I figure I can only get control of myself with reason, and I’m afraid I’d reason her right into deserving the spanking, and I can’t do that. After all the years I’ve put up with her as she is, I can’t start manipulating my wife just because I’m losing my grip. Can I?”
The vicar heaved a sigh and wished his wife would hurry up with the rum, “I’ve never been able to handle mine, either. They do as they like, don’t they? Can’t deny I’ve thought of spanking, but I wouldn’t dare, she’s not much of a cook as it is. And, of course, I do have to consider physical discipline from the pious angle – sanctity of the human spirit, inviolability of the person, assault causing bodily harm, the science of feminism, Mother Earth and Missus God – denying spontaneity, requiring an appointment for consent, and quite often in need of special clothing. But I wander. What of reason? You said you were afraid she might find reason from you. You believe you had reason?”
“Oooh yes,” George drew on the vowels. “Don’t you know my wife? Elizabeth Everett, she comes from here originally. Her father farmed around here, though she doesn’t admit to it.”
“Before my time, I expect, but my wife, she would…” The Reverend was startled by the darting reappearance of his wife, hands wiping at a tea towel, closely followed by Bea bearing the rum bottle. Offering fingers smelling sharply of spirits, woe and pity in her eyes, Anna spoke to George in a hoarse whisper, “I didn’t know, Mister Preston, I didn’t know.” Her lips snapped and quivered over little moans of sorrow, “Beatrice tells me you’re married to Lizzie Everett and you hit her dock…”
“Bea’s dock, dear,” The Reverend was afraid his wife had slipped into one of her confusions, or possibly the rum fumes, “Mister Preston’s wife is from around here, apparently she…”
“Yes, dear, I know that, it’s a wonder he’s not killed, his life won’t have been easy.” She flicked a worried look at George, “It wasn’t a… you weren’t trying to… do away… It’s a cry for help, isn’t it?”
“Anna!”

Bea had had to give Anna the goods on George Preston in a potted version not because she felt the need to edit her recent encounter with the man, and his wife, and her own daughter, and her mother, and the godawful disaster, and… well, perhaps a little trimming. No, Bea had given Anna a reduced concentrate of facts because she knew that Anna couldn’t save herself from Velma Lettie’s curiosity, an inquisitiveness that left thumb-screws unneeded, and Bea had long ago learned that Anna suffered less, the less she knew.
So, in fact, Bea had only managed to say, in a very low voice necessitated by the high-ceilinged, wooden sound-box of a pantry, that she’d only just met Mister Preston two days, evenings, really, ago, “In public, of course, in a bank. A reception. Hundreds of guests. I was a guest. They’ve redone the bank, a lovely job. Katherine had a picture up. Mother was there. In the bank. In the city. His bank.” And then tonight he’d hit her dock in the dark. “Dark so early! An accident, certainly. Not hurt, just a bump. Dock’s so rotten, doesn’t matter, never used it. Anna, he’s married to Lizzie Everett!”
Anna had been there when Bessie, calling herself Liz, had come home from Havergal with her schoolgirl snottyness, had taken one look at Bea’s handsome new husband and announced to her acquaintances (her friends were selected from very good homes elsewhere), announced to the Letties, to Anna herself, that the poor gorgeous hunk had obviously been tricked by that sappy Bea Sutherland pretending to be preggers. Anna had known that Bea really was pregnant, though just enough to be sure and not showing.
Daughter of the Hardware, granddaughter of the Hardware, Anna had always been there, pinched, meek, devoted to her flute, which had been thought good treatment for her asthmatic wind, and devoted to Bea, who was always a year older, ever so much braver, and the only person who had ever confided in her. Lizzie Everett had been malicious merely for the fun of it, Anna had been horrified, sure she’d somehow leaked the secret, and when Bea’s husband had disappeared shortly after the birth, Anna had suffered more than Bea, who at least hadn’t also believed she’d betrayed her only friend.
“Anna, he’s married to Lizzie Everett!” Anna’d gone cold, the big bottle of Lamb’s Navy with which she’d been dampening her stack of muslin squares, having corked it with the sprinkler-head from her laundry bottle, the rum almost slipped from her fingers. But Bea, alert to the effect of her words, caught the bottle by the neck and patting at the knuckles Anna had clapped to her mouth, said “Breathe.”
Anna opened her throat, opened her lungs, and fear ebbed on a new breath, to surge anew in euphoric rage. That silken cunt, she won’t make me talk this time! Whatever it is, I won’t tell. Bea mustn’t tell me anything, “Don’t say another word!” She snatched up a tea towel, “The poor man,” and headed back out. She wasn’t going to let another one get chased off.
Bob Ross stared at his wife, blinked and shook his head. How the woman’s mind works, I do not know. Or if, sometimes, I think. I like her, but she’s nuts. “Anna, what on earth makes you think the man needs help? He’s quite all right. Unfortunately, he came tonight for the Supper. It’s all my fault, really, if I’d not been foolish with the signboard, none of this would’ve happened.”
“Speaking of supper,” Bea thought it best to distract Anna, “I kind of said you might be able to whip up a toasted cheese, or something simple. I think the poor man’s starving, though he’s too nice to say so. I’d have fed him, but…” she tipped her head and pursed her lips, “You know.” She touched a hand to Anna’s shoulder and turned her to the pantry, “I can do it, if you tell me what.”
“And if we could have the rum, my dear! If you’ve finished with it. Have you? Yes? Good. Not quite? Soon? Yes. Our guests could join us in a lovely bowl of punch, my dear, hot and refreshing and surely a necessary antidote to all of this dreadful trauma.” The Reverend didn’t feel up to any more confessions just at the moment, and counseling was seven to nine Tuesday and Thursday, in the office off the vestry, the chill and no tea kept people from hanging about. There was something of irritation in his voice as he watched the rum go back to the pantry, “We need a little something against the shock, I think, we wouldn’t want… uh, George, to catch a chill, now would we?”
George was thoroughly bemused. Anna Ross seemed to think marriage to Elizabeth to be just cause for… well, seemingly, she thought it just cause for suicide, and her husband, clattering his kettle and condiments about on the table, seemed to be in desperate need of a drink. He watched the Reverend check the heat of his kettle and return it to the stove. And this Bea… What is it, a Mac something or other, a Mc? We were introduced at the reception… not MacDonald, though she’s not bad in the arches department. Mac A, something. I should remember, I’m good at names, part of the job, but not MacKay, no, and the mother… Where’s she? Does she live here too? She introduced herself… Sutherland! Yes, Tillie Sutherland, and Bea Mc… What? McAlpine!
Yes, you remembered it on her dock, George, when you first saw her in the light. Oh, did I? Yes, and what about her anyway? Oh, well, she seems… I suppose she told this Anna, about Elizabeth’s escapade the other night. Must’ve been some story, she’s got no reason to be kind. I’m surprised I’m not tarred with the same brush, she must be a damned forgiving woman, good-looking, too, and she seems a bit saner than the other two do. Speaking of sanity, why did you tell him you spanked her? Never mind now. “So, d’ you like the church game… Bob? Robert? Which d’ you prefer?”
If all that’s here meets the eye, I’ll eat my collar, but the women seem to want to keep him, feed him, even, so it’s not for me to throw him back. Yet. “Well, I was Bob as a boy, Robert as a young man with ambitions, and I’m still that to people who care for that sort of thing – my wife, when she has to mention me, the Bishop, when he’s working – but I’ve found I don’t mind coming back around to being Bob, among friends it helps with the stiffness of the collar. And yes, I like the church game, as you say. Not the wardens and the pew fights, but I like having the authority to encourage cooperation. Even when people don’t, they know they should, and that’s half the job right there. If there is any sort of Hereafter, one is certainly not going to improve one’s chances by being disagreeable.
“Ah, here comes the necessary at last,” as Bea, slipping from the pantry, sidled to the table and deposited the rum bottle in an imitation of stealth, Bob Ross gave her a wink and reached for a spoon and the jar, “And I’ve still honey to melt! Thank you, Beatrice, thrice blessed,” and to her retreating back, “I believe there’s a can or two of that Maneater soup, or whatever it is, in the tin cupboard back there. She mightn’t think to look.” And he poured honey into his silver bowl and caught it with his spoon.
“She’s quite the woman.” It was all George could think to say, but the words carried the weight of his appreciation.
“She’s quite the woman.” Repeated as an affirmation, the words carried a lighter load of affection, “I’d be friendless in this church, without Bea.” Crushing the heads of cloves in his fingers, Bob Ross sprinkled the honey. “Well, perhaps not, but almost. She’s as proper as the rest of them, more so, if it comes to that, but she sees the silliness of people rather the way I do, and we share that. She doesn’t swear and she’s kind to my wife.” He trickled steaming water down the slope of the bowl, returned the kettle to the stove, floated chips of dry ginger and stirred figure-eights with a cinnamon stick.
“Beatrice is a blessing, and it never fails as a mystery to me why some fellow hasn’t wit enough to take her up on it. Mind you, I’d find that inconvenient, I’d not have the advantage of her, but that’s a selfish thought and it could lead to covetousness, so I’m just as pleased she’s as she is.”
“And just how is that?” George thought he felt, rather than heard, the lowing of a bull here, a placid bull, perhaps, but a bull all the same, “Is she widowed? I know she has a daughter, Katherine. I’ve met her.”
“Oh, have you now?” Not so simple after all!
“And her mother, Missus Sutherland. Tillie? Yes, a grand woman, I’ve met her as well.”
“Ah, have you now?” Well, this was certainly deeper than a bump in the dark. Bea’s dock was beginning to look deliberate; knocking it into matchwood might be accidental, but finding it…? “And where would this have been, then?”
“Oh. At a reception for…uh…” Some deep resistance to yet identifying himself diverted George, “…for a picture-hanging, for one of Katherine’s pictures. I met them… So, this whole business of running into Bea… into her dock, well… amazing!” His head bowed in a slow shake and a fond smile split into a grin, “Small world, eh? I get a hankering for a turkey leg and a piece of pie… and the next thing you know…” George found he couldn’t bear the pretense, “So, what became of the husband, McAlpine?”
Bob Ross found he was slapping his honey rather savagely round the bowl, made himself stop and take a deep breath of spiced steam. “Apparently, he went back West soon after Katherine was born. It was before my coming here and it’s never been my business to ask why, frankly, though it would certainly appear my wife could tell you. I do believe the marriage was never dissolved, and to the best of my knowledge he’s no older than the rest of us, so there’s every chance he’s still alive.” The Reverend snatched a nutmeg from his spice box. And Bea’s not just ripe for the plucking. Oh, Lord, did I say that aloud? He darted a look at George and went to hunt his grater. I don’t care if I did.
Exchanging nods and gathering breath at the door, Brad stepped into the circle of Sam’s cue and Paul aimed straight for the bar. Brad eased a hip against the table and spoke to the felt next Sam’s stick hand, “Hey, Sockeye, the dude at the bar’s a talent agent and the woman wants your body,” Not being told to get his goddam ass off the table meant he’d been heard, “That’s the word, anyway. Paul knows ‘em. He’s scoutin’ for braves and she’s all for casting your couch, my man.”
“I’m not your fuckin’ man,” Without raising his head, Sam stabbed one dark eye at Brad, “And we don’t do Sockeye, either. Remember that, Sweetpea? Or you’ll wear this stick in yer pants.” Sam snapped the cue in a jab that stood the white in a cracking spin and sent three reds to three pockets. “Of course they want the Indian.” Two banks, two reds. “They got money?” End bank, one drop, three more clear. “What the fuck does Paul know?”
“So, what?” Paul thought it best to open bidding from the top, “You want my balls before the Dragonlady gets ‘em? What the fuck are you doin’ in the Arlen Hotel?”
“ You! Holy shit! You! That’s it! It was you, wasn’t it? Who’s from up here. That’s why I thought of it. It was you!” Katherine’s jaw tightened. Jesus, what the hell’s his name? “It was you.” I’m sounding stupid! “And Martin! Yes, you remember Martin. Martin you remember…” Katherine managed the business of opening the circle, but timing failed her; Martin broke into a sweat that slipped her grasp and the jukebox stopped on a white-girl bluenote. She turned on an elbow, “Can I get another Jack over here!” Listened for a name behind, “Another double!” And turned, “You…”
“Paul.”
“I knew that.”
“So?”
“So. This is…uh…amazing! You’re here.”
“Well, no, not really, it’s pathetic, maybe, but what’s amazing is that you’re here. Not much point me hangin’ around after mouthing off to the Dragonlady, but I’d ‘ve thought you’d be stalking her with an Uzi.”
“Let’s not go there. Okay? Not now.” Katherine was sharp, but she saluted Paul with her glass, “We’re on holiday, that’s why we’re here. Aren’t we, Marty?” She tried to grab flannel and merely succeeded in slapping Martin’s tightly tucked belly, but it brought him around.
“Are you following us around making trouble?”
“I live here.”
Martin did a quick slow-take of the room back to a longer look at Paul, “Yes. Well, feel free, I’m sure it has it’s moments. How would you like to get me out of here alive? Do what you like with her, but save me. Okay? She’s done nothing but cause trouble since we left town. Since I met her. Tried to get me raped and murdered in Peterborough this afternoon. She’d be dead meat, if it wasn’t for me, a slimey cheeseburger oozing…”
“Shut up! Martin.”
“…hillbilly hormones and…”
“Was that your first big kiss then, Marty?” That worked, Martin’s lips snapped, Paul’s eyebrows rose, and reaching around, to pick up her new drink, and turning, Katherine toasted the air, “To Manooth. That’s what the sign said.”
In her line of vision across the top of her raised glass, the big, long-braided Indian caught her eyes, spun his stick in a single baton twirl and turned back to the table.
In tacit acknowledgment that George shouldn’t feel foolish eating alone, a bustle of tin opening, soup heating, table setting and sandwich spreading got underway in the warm fug of the manse kitchen. Bea said grilling was just asking for cholesterol, so the Reverend dressed cheese with lettuce instead. Anna stretched a tin of thick soup with thin milk. George opened a sealer of doubtful blue pickles and Anna found, in the back of the crisper, some woody late radishes the Letties had thrust upon her in the previous week. Delighted with all the energy of a party, Bob Ross was eager to make up his bowl of punch and get things really rolling, but was persuaded to hold off on the rum, at least till they’d drunk their soup.
Chatting carefully of weather and dreadful traffic on the roads, they ate until George could declare himself quite full, thank you, delicious, and he couldn’t be more grateful for their Christian hospitality, which startled the Reverend into a post-prandial grace.
“Here now, we’ll need something to clear ourselves before we can taste Robert’s punch!” Anna’s unusual presence of mind so took the others aback, that she’d returned from the pantry with an old biscuit tin rattling full of walnuts and crackers and picks before anyone could speak. In passing, she switched on the burner under her husband’s kettle.
“Oh! God! Walnuts!” George reddened with the enthusiasm of relief. For one horrible moment, hearing ‘something to clear ourselves’, he’d feared having fallen in with anorexic cultists, a basin and feather, then realized he just hadn’t before heard Anna voice a full thought.
“The walnuts, of course. Thank you, Anna, my dear.” Robert Ross was expected by his wife to accept the fine-point of dry living; elbow patches, castille soap (not lavender, it made her sneeze), grey beef and black tea, and so the nuts without the Stilton was less than no surprise, but he was pleased that it was cake night and she’d welcomed in the rum.
“Walnuts.” Bea sighed for the sake of her dentures and the taste of maple-walnut anything, more dear to her than chocolate. Nuts stuck in her plate? Unbearable. Maybe she could just suck and not swallow? “Walnuts!” Her face flooded red in shock with itself. The man’s just an acquaintance. Anna’s flirting worse than I am, all sparkly from the fumes. Anna? Get a grip on yourself, the girl’s never even been able to see her own eyelashes, let alone bat them.
They all cracked nuts with relief, while the kettle returned to a boil, then with a brush at dry husks from his chest, the Reverend rose to slice lemons, to pour and to squeeze, mingling amber into sharp, sweet vapour, then using a silver ladle with a modest mouth, he filled four beakers of butter-yellow Beleek and handed them round.
As the rum went down, spirits rose, for though rituals of hospitality, properly observed, should be their own reward, libations from a common bowl tip the heart, so that Bea’s suggestion of a hand of cards met with boistrous enthusiasm, and although George couldn’t remember ever having played canasta, he was confidently assured that he’d pick it up in no time.
“If you would hunt out the boot and the cards, my dear, in the buffet, as always, I expect. And perhaps Bea would clear the table while I do us another…” and the Reverend bustled his kettle to the tap and back to the stove.
George rose with the women and had the dishes stacked before Bea had picked up a soup spoon. She waited until she had gathered the cutlery and joined him by the sink before asking in a quiet voice if he’d rather be out of it and on his way back upriver, “You don’t have to stay just to be polite. Perhaps you’ve more important things to do. I’ve one of those big-beam flashlights you’re welcome to borrow, if you need to see your way.” Afraid that he was being trapped by good manners into what must surely be a stunning bore, and equally hopeful that she had it all wrong and that he was enjoying himself no end, Bea was quite unaware that the flattering quivers of fear and desire animating her questioning look called up a pounding in George.
George saw absolutely no reason to resist a harmless flirtation. Oh sure, you’re not just some senile old fart taking a last flying leap at the carousel ring. Are you? No! Am I? You’re grotesque, you’ll land on your face in the mid-way mud. I’m not that decrepit. Yah, right. I smell rancid old flesh stirring and champing it’s dentures for one more bite at the peach. Oh, piss off! “No, no, this is great, just the thing I need, Beatrice. All those big receptions, those boring affairs… uh…functions, boring functions, well, I’ve had more than a sane man’s share, so this’s a welcome relief.” Oh, you’re happy to be homey with the little people, are you? You pompous blow-bag.
“That’s not right. This’s awkward, isn’t it? I’m not pretending to some jaded urbanity here,” George sketched a soft-shoe and wagged his hands, “You’ve seen what a cabaret act that can be turned into – my wife’s performance art.” He hung his head, then raised it, “I do so much apologize for that, Beatrice. No, allow me, please. The responsibility is mine, and I want you and your daughter and your mother, to understand how grateful, how deeply grateful, I am for your amazing forbearance. An ugly, vulgar display, and yet you walked from it, all three of you, wrapped in dignity.”
“Wrapped in my daughter’s painting, you mean.” Oh, Lord, did I say that? Thought it and said it. I must be red as a beet. Where’d you get the nerve? Well, it’s true! And it wasn’t my fault. It was her! It’s always her, Elizabeth, that bi… His wife! “I’m sorry, that was uncalled for.” Bea was contrite, but she felt unaccountably happy, even felt like laughing at the image scratched on her memory; the three women of the Sutherland clan kilted in split canvas, like a newsprint photo of a hurricane hit, the very centre of disaster, and in the shuddering shock of accident, not picturing, but memorizing fear that she might no longer be wearing clean underwear. Bea had sniffed, Katherine sniffed, Tillie had snorted, and reassured, the three of them had stepped from the wreckage and made their way to where David stood, who had held their coats and Martin up, and out the door in an exit of imperial pace that had brought the doorman’s white glove to his silver-braided cap.
So Bea did smile, even chuckled as she spoke to George’s dog-eyed expectation, “We did make an exit, didn’t we? My mother would say it’s the breeding. Inbreeding, maybe.” Her smile saddened, “Looks like Katherine’ll be the end of that, now David’s left her. Last man of the family, gone.” She realized as she spoke that it was true, and a tear sparkled and her breath caught.
Slow, slow… you’re pounding too hard. Breathe from the belly, deep, George, deep, George, deep… deep… Don’t grab her by the hair. Can’t sweep her off her feet without us both in a heap on the mat. She’s man-less, don’t spook her. “I…” Whoa, Romeo, dignity here. You’re a man who wears a homburg, you can’t just go wild and start pissin’ fence lines. No. “Yes, of course, David, your daughter’s husband, we met…” George leaped to concern, “Not because of the other night, surely? He’s not blaming…”
Bea shook her head no, flinging a tear, until she could say, “No, no, he was already gone, really. He turned up for lunch that day, Friday, but she’d already told me,” Indignation slammed soup bowls into the sink, “My daughter wore a man’s suit, her husband’s suit, to lunch, in public, to Fran’s restaurant, in public, to tell me, in the Ladies, in Fran’s, in a public washroom, that her husband is leaving her, already left her, and she doesn’t know why. She’s done nothing wrong, he’s just gone for no reason at all. Worst of all, I believe her.” Bea applied herself to turning taps and running water to hide a stream of tears.
As a banker, George didn’t believe in breaking people’s knees. More sophisticated punishments left no mark, even the old beating with a sockful of oranges had evolved into a light touch on a keyboard. But it didn’t stop George from imagining a tire-iron swinging at a kneecap all the same. What kind of spoiled human garbage would make this wonderful woman cry? For no reason at all, apparently. Bullshit, the bastard’s got a little something on the side and he’s too lazy to drive with both hands. Are there still tire-irons?
Then again, what’s the likelihood of this Katherine being so innocent? I doubt she’s fucking that twit, Martin, don’t think he’s the type, but she’s a woman, for one thing, and an artist, a painter, for godsake! And she hasn’t done anything wrong? I saw her in that suit. You don’t suppose… “You don’t think maybe she’s a les… oh…” Oh, my god, Georgie, how’re you gonna get out of this? “They’re young! Phases, you know, different than our day, my day, your day, they seem to think differently now about…umm…gender.”
That her daughter’s marital problem might consist of someone having too much sex, or not enough, had, of course, crossed Bea’s mind, and had been dismissed, because she didn’t want to think about it. She certainly had no idea of considering what kind of sex, so she chose not to hear George, “Men just do seem to drift away when things get confusing.”
“I have the shoe! I have the cards!” Pink with anticipation for her once a year celebration, Anna called from the hall, “Shall we have some play?” For a quick moment, she felt so tickled with herself and liquor fumes, that she feared she’d wetted herself and then, overcome, as once a year she was by the desire to be naughty, she didn’t care if she had, and quite skipped to the table to lay a thick green plastic card tray and two dog-eared decks at the end by the punchbowl. The punchbowl which she saw as the Well before which the hands Gambled, for Anna kept an early Sunday School felt-board image of the world, and scenes like this, she knew, could be found without trouble in some of the ruder books of the Bible. She would suffer on the morrow, as she would the following three hundred and sixty-four, until once again she’d rum her cakes and play at cards and use foul language. Tonight she’d breathe.
Initially distracted by Anna’s peculiar method of accommodating the large hand of a canasta deal, George’s old poker habits picked up the rhythm in no time, and though he thought it rather like a game of adult Snap, he refrained from saying so. It was Anna’s laying of her hand of cards face-down in rows that held him back. Watching her study her share of the deal as each card fell, he noted that her fingers were neither unusually small, nor seemingly bent with pain, so that he understood that Anna’s unerring ability to pluck the correct card from the unseen hand lined up on the table before her was an adaptation of such long practice that it might well retrace to childish hands and the matching of lions and giraffes. Neither her husband, nor Bea, showed any suspicion that Anna might renege on a card, so they weren’t disguising beneficence and their lack of comment suggested it wasn’t a parlour trick. George chose to admire Anna’s memory silently and took it as a warning to avoid mentioning his wife.
Bea took a card and wondered what on earth the man was doing there. She considered the chances of filling a run of hearts. This man’s been having an affair, or something, with that bizarre woman, that friend of Maude’s – I ask you, what’s gone wrong there? Her own sister? The family’s gone mad. – That woman… A gypsy, so David figured. This man cheats on Elizabeth? You’d have to be suicidal. Maybe Anna’s right about him hitting my dock. Don’t be silly. Katherine called him a sexist old Philistine, but that’s the kind of thing she says, and she was upset. Mother thought he’s a good-looking man. She’s right for once. I’ve too many suits, hearts’ll never work. Martin would know what kind of affair it is. Oh, give it a try, the cards are there. And she discarded a frivolous diamond.
Bob Ross could read the signs: the plumpness of blood in Bea’s cheek, George’s left hand, between card picks, lying palm-up and cupped open on the edge of the table. Bea’s wide-eyed meditations certainly weren’t focused on her own hand. George wasn’t exactly caressing the cards, but his long-fingered efficiency promised pleasure. Anna and I could drop down dead under the table, grow horns and hooves, and these two wouldn’t notice till the deal passed. Sticky as a pair of teenagers, I shouldn’t wonder. One can only trust they’re past the increase and multiply stage.
Well, bless them, I mustn’t play dog-in-the-manger, who am I to say, after all, though I shouldn’t approve. Adultery. Who says I do? Can you not see friendship without lust? Whose lust? Leave it be. And the Reverend faced-down his cards to crack a walnut, “Should we have another cup of punch, George?”
Anna checked her hand with a long slow blink of her eyes that rolled the ordered columns of cards down the backside of her lids. Her strategic intention had a chance of winning out provided the enemy made at least two more of the moves she was anticipating. Too amateur not to, the pair of them. Bea’s never had the killer instinct, Lord knows she’s good, she loses nicely. Him, well, you’d think a money man’d be useful with the cards, but then he’ll have had his mind ruined by that evil bitch. He’s not up to much. We’ll beat their behinds and bury them, long as dear old ‘Patience and Perseverance’ keeps his eye on the cards and out of my rum. Still, I wouldn’t say no to another cup, myself, “Do say yes, Mister Preston. Of course he says yes, Robert, the moment we’ve played this hand out.
“Oh dear, not another disappointing card, Bea? Of course it’s just a game, any one of us could have the luck, it’s the Devil’s own child and goes where it will.” Though it wouldn’t hurt you to pay attention to what the hell you’re playing, Anna thought, discard, for the love of mike, we haven’t got all night, give us one of those diamonds you’ve no use for, “Perhaps the cakes can be persuaded to spare us a slice alongside, if you’d care for it. Would you? Oh, I’ve no doubt you would, dear. And Mister Preston? It’s early for them, not really ripe till Christmas, but it’s a dark cake, Bea’s always liked it, and not at all dry.”
Soaked, is what it is, soaked with a bottle of dry brown sherry, Bea counted, a cup each of maraschino and cheap port, and just now sprinkled to oozing with black rum. Soaked is what it is, not dry. Bea thought maybe she shouldn’t have been so hasty about diamonds, but discarded her draw as too late. Soaked. And so is she. My God, the woman’s pie-eyed! Anna? Maybe a little tiddled, it’s her cake night, after all. No, she’s plastered! She is. I’ve never seen it, not in her whole life. She didn’t even have a life when we were girls, might as well have been a nun, except her grandfather thought Dogans ate babies. Stupid old bastard. Forced the flute on her and turned her into a dirty joke. She should’ve been drunk from puberty. All of a sudden her hair’s down to her ankles. A lot of that lately, around the ankles, must be the moon. “Maybe I should make us some coffee, Anna, would that be a good thing?”
Declaring war, Anna wiped out the enemy, agreed to Bea’s offer, nodded permission to her husband who already had the kettle on, handed the decks to George, said, “Shuffle.” and trotted off to the pantry.
In the ensuing battle, cups of coffee, cups of rum, crumbs of cake and shards of walnut littered the field where knaves and kings contested for their queens. George used his knack for faces and knew what had been played. Bea sat up and focused on an economic preservation of chance benefits. The Reverend held a choice of everything and fed to his wife’s attack.
When finally they had exhausted themselves and all but an inch of the rum, they fell into a relaxed camaraderie that felt domestic. Bea flushed with the long-missed pleasure of men about the house, and watching her ears turn pink, George imagined tickling them with his nose.
The Reverend admonished himself for the sin of envy, but he refused professional guilt; even if he was supposed to be the shepherd, they weren’t sheep. And really, weren’t they old enough to deserve whatever comfort they could claim? Whoever this man’s wife was, she’d apparently needed a spanking. It might be improper, but he did understand and he mustn’t be jealous, he could at least not covet his neighbour’s life.
Anna, frankly, was drunk, and the thought of that bitch, Bessie, cucko… cuckolded, cockholded, ha ha! by her old enemy… Bessie’s enemy, not her own… Oh, no, not her own dear Bea, do Bea, buzz Bea, no not Bea, her one true and only best of ever friends, Bea. Go, Bea!

“I’ll slip down Saturday for her,” Responding to the Reverend’s question of her mother being up for the church supper, “Friday we bake her lovely squares by phone,” Bea paid for her sarcasm with a shudder of remorse, “It’s a life,” not saying whether she meant Tillie’s or her own. “The Saturday drive’s not so bad, now the season’s over.” Another tremour belied her brave words, inspiring George to a helpful thought and to offering her a hand over the threshold of the manse.
“Wednesday at Helen’s, Anna, and don’t go early. Velma’ll get you in a corner and she doesn’t need to know how my dock got wrecked. We’ll just let her think it rotted away because of my neglect, she’ll believe that. And there’s no point…” Bea shuffled a bit on the porch planks and dug her fists into her sweater pockets, “uh… George’ll be seeing Velma and everybody else soon enough, you know, at the supper, so there’s really no need, you see, really no need to mention any…”
“Anna and I have had a lovely evening with you, Beatrice, a most enjoyable evening of conversation and light refreshment, with you,” Bob Ross answered Bea’s appeal. “Did we not, Anna?”
“Refreshment! Such a trumpet of a word! Like resurrection, without having to die first. Or die of thirst!” Anna tittered with delight in herself, “Of course we don’t. But we feel we might and that’s why…”
“Yes, dear, later we’ll discuss it. For now we’ll say goodnight, Beatrice, goodnight, George, a pleasure to have met you, and we’ll look forward to seeing you at the Supper,” The Reverend quickly framed a set of reassurances, “You’re quite sure you can make it back up river safely? You’re welcome to stay over with us, we can make you up a bed, no trouble. Though it’s best, I’m sure, you get back. Perhaps I should drive you up? Another day for the boat. I do think it’s best for all if…”
“No, Bob, thank you for the offer, but the moon’s up and it’s a straight enough run from here to there, and there’s no stray dock at the end of it. I’ve presumed on your hospitality quite enough for one evening. You have to let me come up with a proper gift in return, before I take to sleeping in your spare room. I’ll be back for the Supper, there must be something I can bring? Anything? I doubt you need food, you won’t be serving drinks. What do you lack?”
“Music!” The Reverend startled himself, the luxury of music was unheard of at a Fowl Supper, the blessing sung acapella by the diners standing to their chairs before sitting being the single entertainment. What on earth made me think of music? Pay attention, say goodnight to your guests. Oh, of course, yes, I see. Off these two go into the night, and if this isn’t a moment for the Moonlight Sonata to flood over the audience, I’ll eat my collar. The man did say a gift. “There’s never enough music, is there, George?” Though he’d come in the course of the evening’s gossip to some understanding of George’s position in the world, the Reverend had no desire to coerce, “It’s a pity life’s not more like the movies, with an orchestra playing behind every bush, but you know, we’re so far behind the times we haven’t managed even a portable player for the church hall yet,” he tried to be ashamed as he hummed Beethoven and waved from the porch, “Godspeed.”
Sam had kept up his brave disinterest over the pool table with an exhibition of long strokes and smashing jabs, spinning balls on the lip of the drop, tempting fate with perfect control. The woman couldn’t help but notice. Neither could Harv, who’d gotten irritated by that fuckin’ Canned Salmon comin’ on like some fuckin’ pool shark thinkin’ he’s so fuckin’ hot in his tight-ass jeans and fuckin’ ponytail. I’ll give that fucker a ride for his money. A game and rematch had left Harv hot and unfulfilled, down twenty bucks and twice as irritated. “I catch that fuckin’ cocksucker alone, I’m gonna do terrible things to him, terrible things!”
The grunting of hot testosterone had set adrenals on alert, and like everyone else in the Arlen, the woman had noticed, but she had stuck to the bar with the others and now she was tipping her head toward Brad, eyebrows clenched against curling cigar smoke, “And you actually told that macho asshole that I’ve got the hots for him?”
Hot shame and a sheepish grin, “Sounded like a good plan. Sorry. Paul wanted to… Never mind. My idea, my big mouth. Sorry.” and Brad felt like a small town jerk. So provincial.
“Aah, hey, give yourself a break. Might’ve been worse, might’ve been something to get me killed, instead of laid, so… you know,” The grin was too sweet to resist a quick kiss by his ear, “You’re forgiven.”
It was the kiss that broke Sam’s indifference. Time to make the move, little pig-fucker’s tryin’ to put the blocks to my woman! Ramming his winnings in the seat of his jeans, racking his cue with a snap, Sam signaled the bartender, went for a leak, came back at an amble, scratched his butt for Harv’s twenty and bought the fresh beer right next the woman’s elbow.
“He a faggot?” Sam was nonchalantly offensive, barely bothering to jut a thumb past her down the bar.
Her chin swung over her glass for a look and came back, “Who? Martin?”
“If you say so.” He stayed in profile and waited.
Katherine held her look with a hand to her chin. Great nose, you arrogant prick. “Why? What difference’d that make?”
Sam stared until she broke.
“I think so. But I’m not sure he does.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“If he doesn’t say so, he isn’t.”
“Yah, right. Does he come on to guys?”
“He doesn’t try to, I don’t think.”
Sam snorted disgust, almost said cockteaser, but edited for company and said, “Handjobs, I bet.”
Katherine stared over a held breath and then, “Well, you know, Sam,” Hanging his name out on a note of sarcasm she made a polite nod of introduction, “I’m Katherine, and I just heard that you and Paul’ve been buds for ever. Just how well do you know him ?”
Sam grinned, “Oh, he’s queer. Never even has to think about it, always was, just normal for him. Sometimes he gets like a girl, but not so it really bothers ya. It’s the mouth on him you have to watch for, he’s a sharp little fucker.” He arched his back and hardened his butt on the stool, “So, you’re not really… none of these guys’re…?” He let one long brown hand rub down the inseam of a thigh till he was sure she’d noticed, then tilted his chin at the glass in her hand, “I got more of that at my place. My truck’s in the shop. You got a vehicle?”

Dazed with alcohol and glazed with the romance of his survival amongst the natives, Martin willingly, if not eagerly, accepted Paul’s offer of a spare bed at his mother’s once the initial shock of murderous fury at Katherine’s apparent abandonment wore thin, “The woman drinks with her grandmother, for chrissake! We shouldn’t expect a lot. She’s a slut. No wonder David walked. She wants to fuck off with Chingasckook, fuck with Chingasckook? No skin off my ass. Hope he’s not after her hair, that’s all. She hasn’t got any.”
Bent into the backseat bench of Brad’s Camero, Martin felt the need to explain that Katherine dumped him for Sam because she was a down-market nymphomaniac with a thing for obvious stereotypes. Paul rolled his eyes at Brad and considered putting a hand in his lap, but figuring an audience likely to be a hindrance, settled for a lingering look and a deep breath in an open throat.
MONDAY
On the Monday following the unexpected coffee party in her kitchen, an occasion to which she ever after referred as the ‘Transcending’, Maude found herself in the back of a closet rooting for something decent to wear. I know I have skirts, I used to have skirts. She’d already tugged herself into an old frock of puce jersey, a dress she remembered wearing to Institute meetings, which felt comfortable enough, until she noticed in the closet mirror the side seams opening like slow zippers, not the stitching, but the fabric giving way. My god, how old are my clothes?
She tried to remember how long she’d had the two cotton house dresses she wore back to back. Oh, I bought them… A year ago? A year last May. So, not that… Sure, sure, so once a year I buy a new pair of… Seems you missed this year. Well, they’re still washing up okay. God, woman! The point is, how long’s it been since you bought anything besides two ugly muumuus? They aren’t muumuus. And why are you all of a sudden in a stew about clothes? Why are you in here, all in a sweat with your head caught in a hanger? I’m… Go sit down. Figure out what you think you’re up to.
Dragging a bulging garbage bag out of the rubble of moth-eaten wool and greening leather, Maude retreated to the edge of her bed for a sit and a cigarette. Damn! I’ll bet Lizzie doesn’t even allow these in the house anymore. She puffed furiously and blew a great cloud of smoke. That’s what this’s about, isn’t it? You’re off to Lizzie’s to lunch and you want to look nice. So what? What d’you mean, so what? When did you ever care about looking nice? You never go anywhere, and you don’t give a hoot about clothes except they’re warm enough.
She contemplated her cigarette, tried a hard narrow stream through her nose. Garbo wore pants, I’ve never worn pants, slacks, whatever, maybe that’d be the thing. You’ve lost your mind. You’ve been to one disastrous social shindy and a coffee klatch with your ding-bat sister and the Countess of Transylvania and suddenly you’re fussing like a debutante on the way to a tea dance. It’s not a tea dance, I don’t think they have those anymore and I was never a debutante. You’re telling me. So, what’s the fuss?
Katya had limited her morning round to an early quick trundle over beyond the Davisville station to check on her pear tree. Collecting the last of the windfalls from the scanty lawn into a plastic bag, she felt someone watching from a window of the house. She wasn’t putting up with any interference from people who’d leave good fruit to rot; she growled and stomped and looked fierce, pointed at the hose coiled on the side of the house and mimed watering the strangling petunias that edged the walk. For good measure, she kissed the pear tree goodbye and waved at the watcher.
Down in the market she bought two lovely fat trout, sisters, by the look of them, from the Portuguese; lemons, fresh spinach and a big bunch of dill – her own garden patch gone to seed – from the Greek; cheese from the Italians and bread from the Dutch. Once home, she smoked the fish in a box on the stove, washed the greens and set about batches of pastry for spinach puffs and cheese straws and tiny lemon tarts. I’ll need a cab to truck all this, it’d be fish soup in the subway. Whose bright idea was this? She laid the trout, skins gilt and glossy, on a plate to chill and started up a dill mayonnaise, with an eye on the oven to time the tarts.
You volunteered. Oh, I know, leaped right to it. They need feeding, Bena barely knows how to eat, let alone cook, and the look of Maude’s kitchen, she feeds out of the freezer. Elizabeth Preston doesn’t eat, she dines, I imagine. So, it’s up to me to make sure there’s something edible for lunch. You do your duty, or you end up with peanut butter sandwiches. Besides, Elizabeth offered her house and Bena’s unearthing Ziski, and Maude’s… The mayonnaise went into a sealer jar, the cheese straws into a tin, the puffs were tied in a salted towel and the tarts went on a plate with a lid. …Now I think of it, what is Maude’s department? More mischief? Possibly. Just who is in charge of this show?
Bena went north to the end of the subway, to the end of the bus, to the farthest edge of the city, and high in a glassed massif of concrete and steel, she found Witold Ziski asweat with black coffee, stinking of nicotine, red-eyed and vacant before a computer screen half-buried in sheet music pages.
Wit Ziski was an extremely thin, manic-depressive Pole who loved music, fishing and women. The received facts were alterable; baggy suits gave him at least a second dimension; pharmaceuticals and alcohol smoothed reality and he’d been chased out of Poland by the old communists. The passions, once acquired, were immutable; music was his life, fishing allowed him to think about music in long concentrations of solitude, the ferocity of sex allowed him to forget about music for brief moments of absorption. Everything served the music.
Sweeping her caped arms wide, haloed in a vision of herself backed against the cold northern light, Bena so frightened her old friend, that he was on his knees to the Angel of Death before he heard her voice, “Aach, look at you, mój drogi Pimpus, look at you!” Light caught the beak of her nose, lit the brass helmet of hair, flashed gold and green at her wrists, “No, no, no, my old darling.”
“Pim…puszka ?” Sore eyes straining to focus, sweat turning cold, Ziski’s wand of a body began to wag in anticipation of crescendoing joy, “It is you, my Bena?”
“It is, my Witold, it is. Come, get up from your knees, you will burn them on this poor carpet,” She toed the floor, “and you will not be graceful in your bows to the princess I have found for you.” A cymbal clash of wrists, “Come kiss your Bena, twoja Pimpuszka , for the memory of Paris and for music, and then you must dress.”
Ziski withdrew slowly from her grasp to her fingertips which he raised to his lips, all the while holding her glittering eyes with his own, “A princess? Here?”
“Oh, not a proper European one, a Canadian princess. She knows her name and will lend it for a charitable good. It is likely she would lend it for a nice pair of shoes, but that it not for me to say. She wishes to make an orchestra,” she swept up his fingers in hers, “Voila! She must first have a conductor.”
“She has musicians?”
“No.”
“She has a hall, a theatre to rent?”
“No.”
“She deals in pianos? She has a fine cello to sell?”
“No.”
“Ah hah! She has a young man, a brilliant young man with a great bassoon between his legs and she wishes to…”
“No. Her passion is to rule the schoolyard, not one boy. Though it would be well if it were so. It would be useful to me.”
Ziski heard a wistful, yearning note, “She has a husband?”
“Yes.”
“He is your friend?”
“He is my friend.”
“And he can afford an orchestra?”
“He can make it so, if she wishes it.”
“You have found a prince, I think, Pimpuszka .”
“And a princess for you, drogi Pimpus. Go, wash yourself, brush yourself, dress in fine cloth and perfumed leather, but hurry, I am to present you for lunch.” An imperious hand commanded him from the room.
“To lunch, my Bena,” He batonned one finger high in the air and leaped to the doorway, “An orchestra!”
“A nice suit, Witold.”
By Monday, with George away at the lake, Elizabeth had begun to feel quite bachelorish, leaving a nightgown dropped on the bedroom floor, phoning Holt’s to order up tinned things and hard biscuits and a few bottled sauces. She ordered her housekeeper to leave the cover off the diningroom table, to lay blotter, pad and pencils for five, “We’ll need water glasses, the second best, and a carafe. It’s a meeting, d’ you see, organizational, not social, use the thermos jug, more businesslike. There’s a tone to these things and it takes a firm hand, or you end up with a lot of gossip and people just enjoying themselves without any sort of reason.
“We won’t sit to eat. When Holt’s delivers, set it out on your table, they’ll want to stand after a meeting and they won’t settle in. Five white wines, not the Waterford, and there’s a bottle of something in the refrigerator.” Elizabeth became confidential, “Now, there is a possibility this other woman… Swedish, is she? No matter, whatever, one of those dumpy housefrau types from Europe, you know, dresses like a baglady,” The secretly Polish Missus Quaid nodded her understanding and continued running her duster the length of the back hall wainscoting.
“Katya, yes, I think that’s it, one of those Scandinavians, anyway, she insisted that she must bring lunch. Perhaps she’s used to soup kitchens? I said no, of course, but she insisted that it would be her contribution. Well, who knows what that will be? Although, those people do a nice thing with sandwiches, don’t they? Moevenpick, is that them? Smorgasbord? Herring, I expect.” Elizabeth made a lemon mouth and shook her head, “Well, do what you can to make it attractive, you might sort of lose it among the good things.”
When she went up to dress, she found that Missus Quaid had stuffed her nightgown into the laundry hamper. She tried dropping it on the floor again, but decided it just looked rumpled instead of free. Settling on a heavy-belted khaki whipcord skirt and an oyster broadcloth shirt with a scout tie of Liberty madras, she stalled over shoes. Canvas? Leather? Straw? Pump? Not a sling. Heel? Flat? Sandal? A brown cordovan, medium heel, laced at the instep – a little brigadier of a shoe, that’s the thing. Not bossy, authoritative, a Julie Andrews as a Wren, or whatever, sort of shoe.
Oh, good god! You don’t suppose that whatzer… Katya, she won’t show up in those barn boots? No, she was normal at Maude’s on Saturday. Uumhum. Well, not grotesque. And of course Maude’ll be dowdy as ever. I don’t know what to do with her, such an embarrassment, a sister who doesn’t care how she looks, it reflects. Maybe I ought to lay down a few rules, a dress code wouldn’t be out of order, I don’t think, if I’m expected to direct this little group. Nothing rigid. She strapped on a large gold watch, railroad face, cowhide band, snugged the slipknot of silk to her throat, pined briefly for a nice quirt, a swagger stick – Holt’s? She thought she knew there were shops for that sort of thing, but weren’t they maybe for… well, for… Yes. Well. Holt’s could find her something later, perhaps.
And she stood for inspection before her mirror, a ponderously beautiful old cheval glass George’s mother had brought to her marriage. Its silver had softened and sufficiently tarnished with time to impart a cloud-like suspension to reflection. When the sun was in the right quarter of the bedroom bay, Elizabeth could look positively Titian. She adjusted straps. Not a uniform, Maude would just disgrace it, and I’d need ribbons, of course, for rank, and I’m apparently not sleazy enough for an Order, like that plastic blonde bit… Yes. Don’t get warm, now. No, but a style, a sort of no nonsense good taste.
And then she remembered Bena and the starch went out of her shirt. The Countess’ll be clanging like a porchful of wind chimes, and you can’t expect new tricks from an old bitch with that kind of breeding. Wincing from her own mind, she murmured, “Courage,” and took from her closet safe a ring with a rather large, square, exceptionally fine emerald which fitted to her quiet marriage bands. When at court, do as the courtesans do. No! The courtiers, yes, as the courtiers do. You really must watch that sort of thing, you’ll have enough trouble with all these ethnics trying to pretend they understand English. Thank heaven Missus Quaid’s a Scotchwoman, at least she knows what I’m saying.
Washing up Elizabeth’s breakfast dishes, Missus Quaid wondered for the umpteenth time how one woman could make such a pig sty out of a cup of coffee and two slices of toast. Swiping at a trickle of honey on the side of the toaster, she went back to scraping scalded milk from the rim of a saucepan. And what is this Swedish husfrau business? She better not be taking up with those mad Swedenborgians, or some sort of table thumpers. She said an organization meeting. What now? Have to wait and see what she comes down in. Not a painter’s smock, from the sound of things, she made a damned fool of herself at Mister George’s party. Not the first time, not likely the last; she’ll be back like a Cossack, even if she is a sheet short of a washing. Who can tell, maybe the Swede is good with a meatball and never is there too much herring.
Missus Quaid set the kitchen to rights, shoved a second bottle, an upscale Riesling, into the fridge, opened up the dining room, removed a great Rockingham bowl to the sideboard and took her oil rag to the table. Four guests and the Fishwife, some little benefit for the rich, no doubt. The usual windbags playing at Board of Directors, first thing they find is a table to sit around.
She dug out leatherbound blotters, a new pack of letter blocks, a fistful of yellow pencils and a sharpener. Laying pads and paper, she carried the pencils to the kitchen and carefully sharpening into a bowl, shaped ten perfect points, a chore she liked for the smell. She added the shavings to the muslin bag that kept moths from the winter-coat closet and laid two pencils a place.
Mind you, with the Fishwife at the head of the table__ she set a tray of coasters and tumblers by Elizabeth’s blotter and took the thermos jug to chill in the fridge__ there won’t be any time wasted on choosing a queen, they can get right down to organizing the hell out of some bunch of poor bastards who need to make a living.
The delivery of silly things in tins and packets, potted livers and pastes, flavourless crackers and dark ugly sauces in overwrought bottles, marooned in the centre of the broad kitchen worktable, looked suspiciously like a late-night dormitory sin. Missus Quaid laid plates and silver, stemware and napkins, and refused to make the food more attractive.
When Elizabeth descended to run an eye over the arrangements, she found two cushions on a sofa out of colour order, and fearing again that her housekeeper was failing, she scouted the rooms for fallen petals, drawers ajar, dust motes in the sun.
Having kept her Polish accent secret, Missus Quaid avoided questions in the certainty that Elizabeth could be counted on to voice her expectations, she was forward with her orders and that was a comfortable thing, for Quartermaster Cameron Quaid was a bit that way himself. Still, Missus Q. had cultivated a word or two and relied on punctuation and expression to get a simple answer out of Elizabeth.
Listening to the footsteps of the inspection tour from the safety of the plate-pantry, Missus Quaid determined to question the arrival of the guests, whoever they might be. ‘Time’, delivered with a large question mark over her bifocals and a pursing of the lips, should throw off nit-picks over the lay of the nap of the drawing room carpet. She pushed on the swing door and almost saluted Elizabeth standing foursquare and vigilant in brown leather and khaki, “Time?”

Early in the morning, before George Preston’s insistence on responsibility could blacken her name, Bea phoned Ted McGee to have his men come pull her dock. Oh, collapsed from old age and rot, she supposed, with her fingers crossed. Best to get it out before winter, they could talk about a new one come spring, maybe a float would be best, yes, Ted, thank you.
She dressed herself for town, on the grounds that if she wasn’t at home in the event that George turned up in Strawbridge, she couldn’t be held accountable, then drove her old Ford out the back of the village to Bert’s garage to have the window glass seen to. Bert offered to drive her back and when she said no thanks, would he call her a cab instead to run into Orillia to have her hair done, he wondered what she was up to since he was pretty damned sure she was a regular at the Village Cut & Curl just like everybody else. But he knew better than to question a woman’s beauty secrets, so he just refused to let her waste any more good money and insisted she drive his car instead.

George had happily slept late and didn’t drag his bedding out to air till close on noon. Breakfasting on coffee and stale biscuits, he made up a grocery list that grew with every dry bite. He knew what he was planning from the length of his list, but avoided even thinking of the next step until he’d tidied the kitchen and had a wash and a shave. Then settling back to the kitchen table with fresh coffee and the old black phone, he allowed himself to call up the thought of his secretary at the other end of the line. He imagined Darla in the softly lit silence of her office, an anteroom to his own, both of them mercifully unrefurbished rooms that looked in upon themselves, where the corporate scrim wasn’t sky-filled lake or cityscape, but rather a Klimpt and a Klee and a circus Milne hung on old walnut, old red turkey rugs, old leather, old scotch in old crystal on an old sideboard… George could think of it all with affection, but noticing the frequency of old, he chose that for an omen and dialed up the city.
“Miz Samson’s office. Goodmorning.”
It wasn’t Darla who answered, but a smooth male voice pitched low in pretended authority, and such an unaccountable occurance so threw George from the train of his imagining that his first thought, which he spoke, was, “Where is she? Where’s Darla?”
“I’m sorry, Miz Samson is away from her desk this morning.”
Damn! Poor girl’s probably saddled with some stupid chore I was booked for.
“Perhaps there is something that I could help you with. Are you calling on business? Sir.” The oil of condescension leaking from the voice implied that it was unlikely to be important.
One of those saucy little bastards Personnel buys by the dozen to plug holes with! At first appalled by the invasion of this sort of late-to-the-party Machiavelli into the daily conduct of his business, George had come to console himself with the thought that their cynical disappointment for having missed the golden age of everything from Woodstock to safe insider-trading very likely blinded them to the knowledge that reformation followed renaissance and also, quite frankly, that nobody’d liked that bitter little prick, Machiavelli, either. Considering his options, including his new favourite, a tire-iron to the kneecaps, George took his first step in the new program, said, “Fuck off,” and hung up.
Judging it was going to stay a sunny day, he left his blankets on the line when he took the cruiser out and down the river, his list of groceries buttoned up in his shirt. It didn’t even seem strange now that Darla wasn’t at her desk when she should be. He wasn’t worried about her, it just seemed obvious, another omen.
Maude phoned for a cab a half hour early, willing to risk a punctuality lecture from her sister – “You mustn’t come before you’re asked, Maude, it isn’t done. It’s an inconvenience to the help and it makes you look needy.” But she wanted to arrive before time for the sake of her friends, who shouldn’t be left to Elizabeth’s mercy on their own. She’s liable to hand Katya an apron and put her to polishing the crystal, and god knows what she’ll get up to with Bena, now she thinks she’s got herself a countess. Still not sure I trust this bosom buddies flip-flop, one minute they’re The Wife and The Other Woman, next minute it’s sharsies and come play in my yard. Even if she is my sister, the woman’s nuts.
In the cab, Maude considered her recent abrasions on the uneven mosaic of urban transport (she’d been tossed into traffic from a standing cab by an irate ethnic apparently licensed to drive and to misunderstand) and was grateful for a fat pink-balding gum chewer who grunted once on instruction and had her at Elizabeth’s curb before she’d finished settling in the backseat. She’d given the lamb a pass this time, wrapping herself in a voluminous old caped-back coat of rusty tweed, which inspired Elizabeth to remark that she looked like Red Ridinghood on her last legs, and that if Maude thought she could start dressing like the Countess, she had another think coming, “One bangle and you’re out of this club. Bena’s almost royalty, she can wear what she pleases – just look at the Queen – but you’re just a Davisville widow, remember that. And couldn’t you find anything else to put on? You look a sight in that outfit, seat’s so shiny I can see my face.”
“Keep your face off my backside, Lizzie. I knew I should get here before the rest of your victims. If you think you’re going to tramp your size nines…”
“Sevens!”
“In a pig’s eye, Sister. …your fat, pudgy nines all over my friends…”
“They’re my friends too, as much as yours. The Countess certainly is, anyway, she said so, and the Maestro will be, of course. After all, I understand these creative people, and so really, you’ve just known whatzer… Katya, longer than I have, and I don’t mind if she’s your friend, so…”
Maude reached and held a tip of Elizabeth’s madras tie with a thumb and finger, “I’m warning you, Lizzie, I mean it,” and with her other thumb and finger slid the knot tight to her sister’s throat, “If you aren’t nice to everybody, and I mean everybody, I will personally drive up to Strawbridge and tell Bea McAlpine and Velma Lettie, Vera too, that your husband found it necessary to spank your bare bum. Understand? If it didn’t appear in the church calendar next Sunday, I’d be awfully surprised.”
“Missus Quaid!” Her voice squeaking with panic, Elizabeth tugged free and clattered back the hall, “Coffee, Maudie, you’ll want coffee. Missus Quaid! Oh dear, your coat,” she clattered back to the door, “Let me take it, dear. It looks… warm. I’ll just hang it, shall I? Missus..! Oh, there you are. Missus Matthews would like… You know my sister, yes,” Elizabeth was suspicious of what looked to be quite genuine smiles accompanying murmurs of acknowledgement. They’ll be at it behind my back, if they aren’t already, “She’d like coffee, I’m sure. Wouldn’t you, Maude? And we’ll have it in the… in the… uh…” The housekeeper waited, since the coffee service sat prepared on the pantry counter. Maude waited to see if she was to be hustled back to the sunroom behind the kitchen. “…in the front room then, the drawing room.” Separate the gossips, and a treat for dear Maudie. “The good cream, Missus Quaid.”
Elizabeth turned a wide, tight smile to her sister, “Did you wipe your shoes, dear? Autumn leaves on the silk pile, you know, makes dreadful work for poor Missus Q., a dear woman, but she does ramble in her mind, you know. I’m sure of it. Hard to tell what’s true. She’s slipping in little ways, cushions out of order, laundry in and out of hampers, bedsheets just not as white as they…” Her temples ticked with an alarming memory of sheets and George and… “Sit! Sit, dear, this’s comfortable. Should we have a fire? Are you cold? I feel a bit… Here’s the coffee.” And she threw Maude a knowing look when the housekeeper set down the tray with rather more of a rattle than was necessary. Elizabeth shook her head and mouthed ‘sad’ at Missus Quaid’s retreating back. Maude rolled her eyes and poured coffee.
“Elizabeth, just what is it you think you’re going to accomplish with this new stunt you’re working up?” Maude waited while her sister pretended not to hear, fussed with a cushion, diddled a spoon in her coffee, took a sip and finally flicked a glance back. “Lizzie, d’you seriously think you’re going to take over an orchestra? If you want to front a band, dear, I expect there’re some boys in a garage out in Scarboro who’d love to know you, but I can’t imagine the Toronto Symphony’s going to come play in your yard. George doesn’t have that kind of money.”
Nose flaring, Elizabeth ticked and fidgeted beneath a surface of smoothly locked knees and elbows and rigid fingers controlling a thin china cup full of scalding black coffee, “I intend, Maude, to found an entirely new orchestra, a properly European orchestra, I should think. After all, it’s where the music comes from.”
That anyone should think for one minute that she cared if the TSO came to play at her house! Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, she’s always wrong. I know perfectly well I can’t do the TSO, not overnight, there isn’t time to kiss that much ass. As if it was ever a matter of George spending his money. “I’m going to start my own. Ours. For you too, Maude. We’ll found our own, with the Countess and Maestro Ziski, and uh… Katya. Yes, for her as well. It’ll be an ethnic orchestra, I guess. Yes, of course, but the right kind of ethnics. The ones who know the music because their people wrote it. D’ you see?” Elizabeth replaced her cup in its saucer with perfect aim, struck by such obvious brilliance.
Maude blinked because she didn’t know what else to do. Her sister was far loonier than she’d given her credit for. Patting the bagged pockets of her old blue suit coat for a pack and lighter, she had a cigarette lit before she remembered that she was only allowed to smoke in the sunroom with the fans on high. Her sister sensed the guilty, guarded look for an ashtray, “Filthy habit! You’re only allowed to have that in the…” But there was a reason why… Yes, she didn’t want Maude near Quaid, so… “Here, use this,” And she yanked open the mesh screen on the firebasket full of neatly laid birch, “Just don’t set it on fire, Okay?”
“You’re sure you’ve got this ethnic thing right, are you? You wouldn’t just be picking up on a fad here?”
“Oh, no! Everyone’s doing it, of course; Indians, both kinds, ours and theirs, and the French, they’ve always been ethnic, and the Blacks, it goes without saying, now that they’re African-Canadians, with quite nice restaurants and their own food. So, yes, it’s fashionable, but I think my ethnics might be a little more in the tradition of what this country stands for. Don’t you?” Elizabeth set her lips with a little nod, aware, with a certain amount of shame, that her own sister was lacking in the new political correctness.
Desperately curious, Maude still had no intention of asking her sister what it was she thought the country stood for. Her synapses are doing headstands over this one, she’s so full of codswallop she’ll splatter all over the furniture if I ask her what she’s talking about. “So, you’re going to make your own symphony orchestra with one used conductor, one slightly suspect Hungarian aristocrat, a woman whose name you can’t even remember, and just how much of George’s money? He doesn’t even know about this, does he? He’s been up at the lake ever since you dreamed this up, hasn’t he? You don’t think just because he spanked you, he’s going to feel bad enough to buy you an entire orchestra? Even you aren’t that bald-headed, are you? Good God, girl!”
Elizabeth’s nostrils were knuckle white. That her own sister should consider a brilliant idea in such shoddy terms, it showed where her mind was, “You don’t buy something like this, Maude, you don’t buy a cultural institution, for crying out loud! You may patronize it and…”
“Oh, well then, you’re a natural, dear, nobody’s more patronizing than you are.” Maude sucked down to a good coal on her butt and flipped it among the birch. She hadn’t the patience for her sister’s half-baked aesthetics, the appreciation tending to Lizzie, rather than to art, and looked at her watch, “They should be here. What d’you suppose Katya’ll have done for our lunch, something smart with fish, d’you think?”
Elizabeth shuddered and lost the sting of her sister’s mean-spirited distain for the appreciative capacity of a finer sensibility to a vision of fish eyes staring through a cream sauce, “Pah, you know I don’t care for food that swims, Maude. Anchovy paste in a dressing, perhaps, that’s flavour, but even ducks, well no, really, they do, and a goose, well it walks more, but…” And suddenly she felt quite nauseous and bitter black coffee rose in her gorge, she growled, “Excuse me,” from back of clamped lips, darted into the hall, managed a stiff-legged gallop up the stairs and along to her bathroom where she collapsed in a burning heap with a wet washcloth. So, Maude took it upon herself to answer a knock at the door.

Feeling like a fallen woman with at least one newborn under the teacloth, Katya stood clutching a straw picnic basket, her string bag and a large canvas carry-all, resenting the cabbie’s offer to take her round back. How did I get myself into this? She hefted the hamper of smoked fish and mayonnaise. Ridinghood with one spoiled granny. I’d rather the wolf right now, than Elizabeth Preston. With the best of intentions, she won’t be able to help herself. I’ll be at the wrong door.
“Katya! Wow, look at you,” Maude turned on the doorstep and hollered back the hall, “Soup’s up! Meals on Wheels are here, Lizzie!” And turning back, “Don’t you just look the Lady Bountiful knocking up the cottage door?”
“I feel more like Kathy the Caterer, to tell the truth. I’m glad you’re here, I’m not ready for your sister.”
“Enh! Don’t worry about her, she’s upstairs in a faint, or a hotflash, just because I mentioned you might have done something nice with fish for…” She noticed Katya’s eyes widen and her own winked with delight, “You did?”
“Smoked trout.”
“Oh, perfect. Whole, I hope? Heads and all?”
“Uumhuh.” Any suspicions Katya might have were sent spinning by Maude’s obvious glee.
“Just the merry dish to set before a countess and a concert conductor.”
“With cheese straws for us, and lemon tarts for the princess.”
“Dainty?”
“Very dainty.”
“Oh good. Come on in. Give me that basket.”

A small car passing in the curve of the street braked with a squeal and reversed to a neat stop at the foot of the walk. A lean-headed man unfolded himself from the driver’s seat, a gust of autumn unfurling his black suit. “Witold Ziski,” said Katya to Maude, the two of them stalled in the doorway, “I should’ve done more fish, he needs feeding.”
“Is he bad?” Maude watched for a stagger as the suit blew around the car in the breeze.
“He can be, but it’s really just because it takes two hands to eat sensibly. He’s a musician, one hand’s always carrying the tune and it’s easier for the other one to hold a glass. And here’s Bena,” as Ziski swung open the passenger door and presented an arm.
Against the crackling dry leaves of bared maples, Bena’s green loden capes looked felted of moss and the gold, only gold, in her hair, at her throat, on her breast, at her wrists and knuckles and ears burned deep as peat fire in the smokey cold air. Katya wondered as always how Bena with her curiously disjointed legs could emerge from the most inconvenient position as though a footman had handed her back to earth, “She’d come out from under a rock looking like that, I bet.” Katya snorted scorn, but affection curled her mouth when she shook her head.
“She does it well, I’ll give her that,” Maude brushed at a lapel and did up a button and thought she should have dug a bit deeper in her closet, “Wait till you see my sister, she’s in battledress too.”
Between Katya and Missus Quaid, it was fun at first sight. Missus Q. had steeled herself for a bleached Viking bearing the makings and prepared to give orders for over-designed sandwiches that would need a fork (she’d refused to even fear a fondue pot), so that in her relief she took right to the frizzled stump in the too loud dress who stood in her kitchen offering three bags full.
Katya knew, for Maude had told her, that Elizabeth Preston believed her housekeeper to be of the old Scotch gentry, a little come down, of course, widowed, low in the heel, good managerial stock, landless and therefore biddable. Who she was, was a war bride from Warsaw, married to a quartermaster sergent who’d come out to Canada, kilt intact, to regimental offices. She needn’t have worked, but hadn’t been trained not to, so once the generation of young Quaids had aim on pensions and benefits, she’d put herself on display in a few choosey neighbourhoods of the city. She said so little because she’d never gotten control over the consonants of her own language; she thought speaking was an overrated, French weakness. She set her lips over polite murmurs and either was dismissed for stupidity, or had her ear talked off.
When Missus Quaid had answered Elizabeth Preston’s summons in response to discreet inquiries on both sides, she came in at the front door. Elizabeth quite mistook her to be what she wanted, offering a paltry wage and regular use of the front door. Missus Quaid had seen the need in the error, doubled the offer to a salary and took the back door for her own. Now she nodded approval over Katya’s display of gilded trout and lovely pastry things.
“It is good?” Katya chose a liturgical construction as a convenient leap over the thorns of three languages.
“It is good.” Missus Quaid allowed the jump, “I can make of it very nice.” She shaped with her hands, “Plate for fish, silver bowl, cakestand for little lemon pies.”
Katya was pleased, but not so sure she wanted to be showcased by Elizabeth Preston’s housekeeper, “Oh, no need to fuss. Simple, plain is best.”
The housekeeper cast a hand at Elizabeth’s vacuum-packed idea of lunch heaped on the table, “There is need.” Smiling recognition and gratitude together, she ushered Katya back into the hall, relieved her of her old gabardine topcoat, fur collar and cuffs; without a wink took her stringbag and steering with a gentle curve of neck, she shot Katya back into the gathering.
Naturally, even from the entombment of her bathroom, Elizabeth had sensed the imminent arrival of her future at the curb, and so she was full-front and looking to attention on the landing at the foot of the stairs by the time her guests entered her hall.
“Missus George Preston, Elizabeth, I present to you the Maestro Witold Ziski.” Thus Diaghilev offered Njinsky to the world, and Bena’s bell tones rang a full curtsy.
Maude had done the graceful thing, shooing Katya back kitchen-wards to the care of Missus Quaid, meeting Bena and Ziski at the head of the walk, handing them into the hall, on to her sister. Now she lingered to close the door, with a smile for the russet light on the lawn. She closed and turned to Ziski’s presentation, and she felt suddenly a very long way from home, uncertain of the neighbourhood, shy of strangers. She had never cared to be anywhere other than home, had been content all her life to live within herself, for herself. She had chosen early, before Harry, from bleak girlhood, to be utterly privileged, to have no aspiration, to accept that whatever, wherever, she managed to be in life, she would have aspired to it. That had been the best she could do in the way of ambition.
So, why am I managing the door for one of my sister’s song and dance acts? Oh, face it, Maudlin, times change, bodies change, blood rises, standards fall, you’ve been bored out of your mind so long the first person to say hello in a month of Sundays has you out in the streets fighting and drinking, and she was wearing rubberboots. And I’m not losing it? No! Don’t be silly. What could be nicer than lunch with some interesting new people in your sister’s lovely home? Oh, God! Of course, you could be home putting mitts on the tea kettle. A goose on her grave so shivered her back that without further thought her hand was out and into the scrum, “So, Witold, nice suit.”
“You like it? Is not too big?” Hands in his pockets, Ziski flared the jacket and mocked a model, his black eyes advertising a good deal more than a suit.
“You must forgive my sister, Maestro,” Elizabeth was appalled by Maude’s boldness and given to punishment, “Obviously, as you see, she is unaquainted with decent fashion.” Unsure of the need to raise a slight blush for her acerbity, she noticed Ziski’s disconcerted glance down the length of his suit, and raised a full flush, “Oh! I didn’t mean your… It’s a beautiful suit, lovely cloth. Italian? So dramatic. You wear it so well.”
“In Milano it was made for me.” And paid for me by a fat frau who likes to sing Puccinni, he thought, turning a ravishing smile upon his hostess, “And you, Elizabeth, your clothes you must buy in Paris and in Rome, yes? You are so beautifully dressed, for command, I think. You must call me Wit.”
His veeing of teeth to a moist full bottom lip in a thin handsome face brought Elizabeth to full steam, and creating some air with a waving of arms, “Vill you come…” she led.
Even Bena was astonished by the speed of Ziski’s cast, the set of the hook, and she blinked admiration at him before sharing a quick smile and a nod with Maude and Katya as they followed.
“You must have five musicians,” Ziski rapped his pencil five times on the blotter, waved a cleft and beat five again, “A conductor and five musicians. And you must pay them.” At forty-eight, Witold Ziski was so tired of being poor, struggling and artistic, that he looked sixty. “One violin, two violins, one viola, one cello and one bass, that is the heart.” Bena had promised there was money here and that her friend Katya would have done something wonderful for lunch, he wanted both. “One violin must be strong, know all the music, how to play it, how to teach it. That one will be concert master, and you must pay for a good one.”
Ziski knew perfectly well that people with money didn’t like to be asked for it, or if they did, liked to say no for the pleasure of being asked and keeping it to be asked again. He’d be grateful for lunch, he’d heard trout mentioned, but he’d rather have a future, he needed his teeth fixed. “The rest of an orchestra you will get because they want to play, some to learn, some will want to be stars, but you cannot have the orchestra without the heart,” His pencil struck the air, “and it is the baton that beats the heart!”
A chinking of gold threatened the moment, but an obedient neck muscle lashed the maestro’s back hair and warned Bena to silence. Katya just knew that Bena had expected to correct Ziski’s English, and her appreciation of his performance was greatly increased by his means of control. Maude was certain that her sister wasn’t pleased to be handed the bill right off the baton, as it were, and expected her to shy.
“But did you not just say that the…uh, concert master? Yes? The concert master must teach?” Elizabeth thought she’d spotted an economy and mounted up, “If he… Must it be a he, did you say a he? Could it not be a she?” She looked knowingly at the three other women, “I expect that’s possible. But you said that person must know the music and teach it, did you? Yes. Of course, conductors are lovely to watch, all proper white ties and hair, but I mean, if you’ve already a band leader..?” Her innate cheapness attempted to outride all possible attractions.
“My dear lady!” Black cloth draping into spiritual folds, Maestro Witold Ziski stood from his place at the table and reaching, collected his hostess’s two hands into his and with a slow raising of arms drew her to her feet, “My dear lady, it is the concert master who teaches, maybe, to be musicians. It is the conductor who teaches to be an orchestra.” He said it with his lips, with his eyes, through his fingertips, and his body swayed gently to a slow movement.
With a toss of his chin, he drew Bena in, “When my pimpuszka, Bena Alesandrovna, came to me in excitement to tell a miracle, to tell me a woman, a woman of true culture – she said, in fact, a princess – a woman of good taste with a great love of music..! Aacch, she told me this and I did not believe her, I thought, ‘Ah, my Bena, you have been too, too long and too far from your home, there cannot be such virtue here, here in this raw, wild… new country.’ I am here ten years and I have not seen such virtue. It does not exist! But I am wrong.” He spread wide his arms with hers at his tips, “I cannot be blind. What I see, Elizabeth Preston, is someone who knows how to lead!”
Ziski’s black eyes sparked with such glee and his wicked grin was a dare, “You can do this thing, Elizabeth Preston, a woman of the best cultivation is what I see. I look in your house…” His look swept an arc towards crescendo, “…beautiful things. I trust you. It will be so wonderful fun, we will have very best times.” And he slipped his fingers from hers to rise higher, “We will make music.” His hands made a sign in the air and his suit was a surplice, and then he bowed as a maestro bows, while Elizabeth’s arms drifted to her sides, and he murmured quite clearly to himself, “Very likely a princess.” And as Elizabeth still stood, he sat.
A princess. He doesn’t mean it. We will make music. They all talk that way. Elizabeth’s thighs felt heavy. It’s why they’re Europeans, everything means something else. He certainly is an exciting man. Her thighs were pressing. I’d better sit. Just six to pay! You can’t deny it’s a step down from the Gallery staff. We’ll call it downsizing, it’s the decent thing to do. Take deep breaths and bend your knees. He’s certainly worth something more than the violins and whatnot. Slowly! He’s not shy about the getting paid part. They can’t want much, you wouldn’t think, after all, they get to play that lovely music.
“Are you going to sit, or do we all get up?” Maude was dry, “I don’t know about you, Sister, well actually I do, but I’ll bet Witold could use a cigarette after that. I know I could. And a glass of something wouldn’t go wrong. Katya, Bena, something cool? My seconders, Lizzie, short adjournment for refreshments. All rise!” Maude flashed her cigarette pack at Ziski and got a nod, “Powder room’s to the left of you, smoking room to the rear. I’ll tell Missus Q. to pull the cork out, shall I?” She marched Ziski through the plate pantry hollering, “Seventy-six trombones and a big bassoon!”
Interrupting my meeting! Telling people what to do in my own house! Ordering my housekeeper around like… Elizabeth’s nose was white with the strain.
Katya thought the crack about the cigarette to be a bit coarse, but not inappropriate, considering the heavy breathing, and she was sure the woman was quietly rubbing her thighs together under that khaki skirt.
Bena approved, but thought the moment could use a little buffing to bring up the shine, “Your sister is charming in the way of the people, is she not, Elizabeth? Proud I would be to have such a big honest nature, but you must not let her enthusiasm shock your own, perhaps gentler, perhaps finer feeling for what is good taste. We cannot help it, you and I, if we are bred to the blood of princes, knowing what is right, it is our fate, and you, you most certainly, consort to a man of great influence and responsibility, you must carry your cultivation to people with loud behaviour. It is your duty.”
Bena had risen with her words to circle the table with arms extended, and unnoticed in the righteous fluster of compliments, denials and hands, Katya sidled from the room, crossed the hall to a lavish little Laura Ashley lavatory, closed the door on Bena’s voice, “…magificent emerald!”, made herself comfortable and shut her eyes against ten thousand tiny flowers and a heaving panic.
Young when her husband was killed, her son just three, Katya had chosen the middle of the road for the following years. A quiet, respectable widow with orphan son, she’d returned to Finland to earn some credit for the language and came back in time to put Sam to school and herself to supervise, in two languages, the offices of Fincan, dealers in furs. Self-contained, she had lived in a genteel, respectful manner that allowed her to hide in her yard in the summer and not be missed in winter. She worked and gardened and cooked for Sam, and afforded him whatever they mutually agreed that he needed to make his way through boyhood.
Katya’s choice, however, hadn’t prevented Sam from turning back into Saami. After two decades of reasonable peace, Sam had put aside the ordinary life he’d been given, and choosing roots and metaphysics instead, fled to a fish house back in Old Suuomi where he built boats and carried on with God. Katya was disgusted; all those bland, normal, mediocre years – four ungenerous raises and one pathetic affair so lukewarm Sam never even noticed she had it – all those years of safety in the middle lane she had chosen for Sam’s sake. She, herself, would have gone to California and dropped acid on a beach. No, she’d have stayed back and married some big thick Finn farmboy and… No, maybe she’d have been a Queen of Fashion, modeling, making, ruling… Or maybe she’d have worked and gardened and cooked to please herself.
Well, she’d felt too old for the acid, too fat for the beach, both for the farmboy and the fashion plate, so she took early retirement, encouraged her yard to run wild, ate what she liked and stopped being ordinary, which mostly manifested in her unorthodox wardrobe and habit of harvesting the windfalls from any untended fruit trees she could find in the city. She was no match for Saami, aglitter with fish scales, birching self-indulgence in the sauna, but there were times when she caught herself dressed like a sofa, monstrous boots on her feet, hands full of bags full of bruised apples, bleeding walnuts, melting purple mulberries, and was pleased to think she was giving ‘ordinary’ a run for its money.
Katya swayed on the toilet, and opening her eyes for balance, her claustrophobia met the Devil Himself in a whirl of tiny flowers. She clamped her lids shut, dropped her jaw and took belly-deep breaths to prevent screaming. Trouble is, I’m ordinary compared to these people. Bena, mad as a March hare, and Elizabeth… Sweet Jesus! Even Maude, especially Maude, I’m certain she knows better. And a Polish housekeeper who pretends to be Scotch. I’m out of my league with this bunch. Throw in Ziski, the Musical Snake, and there aren’t going to be enough apples left for a tart. I’m not cut out for this.
So, you’d rather know some other people. I think so. Some ordinary people. I think so. No, you don’t, you haven’t thought about this at all. I have. You haven’t. You’ve got one friend, Bena, and she’s never been ordinary, that should tell you something. And you want to play with Maude, and she’s the one got you into this in the first place, and now, just because her knife-wielding maniac sister wants to play hide-the-flute with the pie-eyed piper of Cracow, you want to know some other people. Umhum. And you don’t think that doing lunch for this crowd has already made you liable in any way? They haven’t eaten it yet. Oh, give yourself some air!
Okay, so I let them eat, then I’m out of it. Sure, if that’s what you want. It’s the only way. Okay. I’d better go help Missus Quaid lift the skins. Unhuh, wash your hands. Katya wiped and rinsed and wiped and escaped being crushed by tiny flowers.
Propped against the drainboard in Elizabeth Preston’s kitchen, a stem of white wine at his lips, Wit Ziski conducted business with a cigarette. Being a musician and under no obligation to understand, even hear, whatever was going on around him, he did, however, have quite perfect ears and the omnivorous ability to swallow whole meanings without comprehending a word. When working a room, he listened for need, for secret desire, for repressed fantasy and cries for help. He would turn to the sound of a reedy plaint with a sweep of a hand and fascinated discovery. He would eye like a doctor and listen for pitch changes and with further sweeps and beckonings of his slender, upheld hands he would draw in others to sound the depths of need and sanity, power and utility, tragedy and comedy, so that standing in a strange room, in a circle of newly-met strangers, if the reedy plaint first chosen rose with direction to show any solo efficiency, Ziski would attack sforzato with operatic imagery of the desperation of his own circus-like existence, and if the solo took to his melody, Ziski would assail that imagination until it burst vivace into a climax of commitment. A former stranger would say, “I will!”, and Ziski would need a cab.
“So, Katya,” Quietly, clearly over the rim of his glass, “You will be the manager and we will all be safe.”
“Spread your arms a little, like this,” Katya spread her elbows from a peak of tented fingers, “Do you know, you look something like a hooded cobra when you do that.”
“You are the best. I know this about you.”
“Or a Jesuit.”
“Yes, you will know all the important things.”
Or a glass-eyed turkey vulture, “I will?”
“Good.” Ziski tucked his cigarette in his mouth with a squint and freeing one of Katya’s hands, held and shook it with what appeared to be genuine gratitude, even affection. He shaped his wineglass at the wreckage of trout and bare crumb-sprinklings littering the table beside them, “Like the fish, I will catch it, you will cook it, and we will make people happy. Look,” His head nodded to Maude and Elizabeth glaring at each other, pretending not to hear, and to Bena who beamed gratification back at him, “Look how easy it is.”
Katya didn’t need to look. Attitudes had been set by Maude’s absolute insistence that they yank a few corks, break out the picnic and help themselves around the kitchen table. Ziski’s indiscriminate acquiescence and Bena’s assurance that it was a frequent practice in old chateaux, bent Elizabeth’s pretended intention of something more formal. A pretense which snapped when the boistrous Maude, poking for fun, thrust a stem of wine at Missus Quaid and told her to join in. Despite the possibilities offered, even the chance for a Polish joke or two, the housekeeper doubted her continued toleration in the job if her cover got blown, and she didn’t need to see Elizabeth’s eyes boring into her head to encourage her to hand over the glass and excuse herself with a polite murmur.
Katya had seen Elizabeth blanch at sight of two fishy eyeballs staring dead from a bed of cress in a silver platter, had seen Ziski’s lusting hunger, heard Maude’s spluttering laughter and Bena’s tambourine crash of approval. She had watched Elizabeth yank open packets, barely resisting the use of her teeth, packets of pale biscuits and odd looking things which nobody ate; heard her recommend bottles of sauces and pickles that might help the fish, and nobody opened those either, though Ziski offered his strength.
Maude and Ziski had filled and emptied their plates twice. Bena had vapoured over the fish which she ate with a great deal of dill mayonnaise before settling upon the lemon tarts, until Katya plucked the plate from her reach to offer to Elizabeth, who hadn’t cared to venture beyond the cheese straws and who now found herself thinking that if angels were lemon flavoured that’s how they’d taste, and that maybe this Katya woman might have a use. Katya hadn’t seen anyone palm food that fast since Sam was small.
Katya didn’t need to look, but she did anyway. Maude’s brow was roofed in expectation over the frame of her glasses. Bena’s body rocked affirmation and glowed with satisfaction. Elizabeth’s eyes glittered and one hand plucked at the other, but that was likely the tarts, and didn’t look antagonistic. They did, however, all seem rather close and Katya needed to remove her hand from Ziski’s clasp, to draw herself back and to find a deep breath.
It wasn’t that she hadn’t the skills, she knew what he wanted, she was neither foolish nor deaf. She had never doubted her administering abilities and clerkish affection for detail in all her years in the fur dealers’ offices. Her own domestic haphazardness had only escaped control après Sam, and it was really just a visual effect, for she unerringly knew the precise location and condition of every element of her household. If a ball of wool was at the bottom of a laundry basket buried beneath a stack of newspapers and an overflowing blue-box behind the porch door, that’s where it was and she knew it. No, Katya didn’t question herself, “So, who cleans it, the fish?” She aimed a finger at Ziski, “You catch it,” cocked a thumb at herself, “I cook it,” both hands spread, “Who cleans it?”
Wit wasn’t sure what she meant by worrying about who would clean the fish. Did she mean business, or did she really mean fish? Bena had told him that this woman knew how to run an office, how to organize and keep track, and that, he knew with good reason, was as important to any possibility of success as his own direction and conducting. The others could find their own usefulness, Katya was a necessity. He didn’t doubt she was perfectly capable of gutting her own fish, but he could afford the gallantry, “I will clean the fish.”
Now that was too easy, Katya huffed a sigh of exasperation. He really means the fish and I mean the dirty work, the knife in the guts of the operation. You need nerve and stomach, and you need sanity for the job. For godsake, look what Elizabeth got up to with a cheese knife and a rope! And who handed it to her, but her own sister. And who egged her on, but Bena. Together they nearly killed three people. They could’ve. They certainly destroyed a painting, and probably that poor artist woman… whatzer… Katherine, her career. It would’ve been a tragedy if the old woman hadn’t raised her walking stick and ripped it into farce.
Without taking her eyes off Ziski, Katya drew herself in and slightly away from Bena and Maude and Elizabeth. They’d snap this poor man like a pencil if they got into a scrap. Silly bugger probably thinks he can keep Missus Pushy wrapped around his finger, or his leg, talking the ‘princess’ bullshit, but he hasn’t seen her crack and go slashing at the arras like the rest of us have. And he and Bena may be old friends from the old country, old countries, plural, and they may even be an old romance, but her old blood’ll take him off at the waist if her honour’s at stake. And Maude thinks truth’s as funny as pretense. They could chew him and spit him before he got his hands out of his pockets, skinny little stick of a thing. Man’s going to dry up and blow away, if he doesn’t get some more food into him, eats like an urchin. And smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish. Says he’ll do the dirty work. Sure. Maybe. Boys! Katya blew a disgusted breath, “Okay.”

What with Maude declaring herself Secretary of State to her sister’s little principality, exhuming her old Institute minute-taking days as credentials and insisting that the least she could do was relieve Katya of the burden of thinking it necessary to transcribe Elizabeth’s endless homilies on culture and meaning and shoes; what with Elizabeth’s acid reminder that she was President – the first syllable came out as ‘Prin’, before she caught it – and as such she could probably have Maude impeached, or something, she’d have to look in the rules; and what with Katya’s okay to managing the shop, Bena felt comfortable offering herself as Inspiration.
“Oh, good, the Music Fairy!” Elizabeth was still acid, having switched her glare from her mean-mouthed sister to this bandy-legged, mobile trinketry, “Tinkerbell!”
“Who has granted your wish. So far.” Distaining even a glance at ingratitude, Bena offered herself to Ziski, “Maestro, I would be your…?” She left her loss for a word open to interpretation.
“Muse! Of course you mean Muse, dear Bena. She means Muse, dear Maestro, how silly of me to think Fairy, why just the other day I…” Elizabeth sweated for correction, “…I couldn’t remember for the life of me. There’s Terpsicore for dancing, I believe, and there’s… Clio, is it? for something, and… and Errato? Yes. For what? Mistakes? Surely not, or is that who…” Her Liberty tie was soaked and turning clammy.
“Calliope, for the Circus, Lizzie,” Maude couldn’t help herself, her sister had been born backwards and forever needed turning around, “All asweat for the bells and whistles. Steam, Lizzie.”
“Oh…is that… Really…” Uncertain, her belt holding water, khaki wilted to her legs, Elizabeth missed her sister’s rolling eyes.
An arm sliced the air and Ziski ripened with affection, “Not a Muse, but a Grace, my Pimpuszka,” his heels actually clicked. Hands amazingly empty and folded one upon the other at his breast, he bent profoundly to his friend, “My Pimpuszka has always been a note of grace. She gave Paris to me when I did not know how to ask for it. Many times she has been the inspiration for me.”
“What exactly is this pimp push… whatever it is? Is it a title of some sort?” Elizabeth was keen.
“It is ‘sweetheart’, I think?” Ziski raised his shoulders in question, “mon petit chou, perhaps? It is the Polish word… ‘darling’, yes? I think.”
“Oh.” Elizabeth wasn’t keen, “That kind of inspiration.”
Black eyes beading with a twinkle, lips pressed on a chuckle, Ziski tucked his chin to his chest in Elizabeth’s honour, “You are the królowa osa, I think.”
“What does…?”
“The queen…uh…bzz, bzz…” His thumb and finger swept the air, “What is the name…?”
“Bee?” Elizabeth was wary, but hopeful.
“Blowfly.” Maude paused her glass at her lip to be helpful.
“No. I think you both are called this, you sisters. It is what you are called…” He flipped his hand to Bena, “…is it not how their ethnic name is? What is that?”
“Ethnic?” Elizabeth’s nose popped white at the knuckle.
Accustomed to supplying vocabulary for Bena’s flapping hands, Katya could jump language barriers and said without hesitation, “Wasp.” Ziski’s grinning affirmation made her think him perhaps not such a thin stick after all.
Bena glowered, “You are calling names again, I think, my Katya. Remember you are an ethnic lady who dresses too loud and carrys her bags in…”
“No offence, Bena,” Maude saluted her glass to the assembly, “It’s what we are, wasps, all sting and no honey.”
“Ethnic?”
“Don’t start, Lizzie. Twin-sets, aspics and the two-step; costume, cuisine and dance, we’re as ethnic as the rest of them. Just because there’s no grant money doesn’t mean we don’t exist. We’re white, well, pink, I suppose, grey on a bad day. We’re Anglo-Saxon, if thin hair and wattles are the genetic code. You only bow to Rome for shoes, and I’ll only do it for reruns of I Claudius , so I think we’re still Protesting. We’re Wasp, all right, the self-chosen people. Blood’s thinning, but that’s maybe just you and me, too much inbreeding you get dry dugs and bleeders.”
“You are so vulgar, Maude! That’s our Heritage, for godsake! It does not make us ethnics. Ethnics are much more…” Elizabeth’s throat shut in horror, her eyes flicked from guest to guest and back to Maude whose wicked smile offered no help, “I don’t know… more… People of The Soil? Yes?” That sounded safe. Maybe. “Oh, good soil, of course! Unless, of course, the soil was bad and that’s why they’re here as ethnics. Oh, and Salt of The Earth, too, naturally, that’s…”
“For God sake, Lizzie! You were born a hundred yards from the barn. If anybody’s got mud on her shoes, it’s you. You know your problem? Well, one of them. You’ve got the words mixed up, ethnic, immigrant, you think they mean…”
“Oh, I think I know what I mean, Maude, dear, and Anglicans certainly aren’t ethnic.” Elizabeth dismissed her sister’s unhealthy drive to contradict and addressed herself to Bena, “Please don’t take offence, Countess, my sister has pretensions to understanding these things, but, well,” She whipped a look at Maude’s wine glass, “you can see her problem. You, of course, must be our Inspiration, you’re so obviously of that persuasion. D’you know palms?”

What Bena knew was that George, her friend, had had to spank this woman, his wife, and she could see why. Bena had come through more than one war walking, and she wasn’t about to be kicked over by any Missus Just-From-the-Barn. She eyed the wilted khaki skirt, the melting broadcloth, darkening leather and sodden madras neckerchief, “Perhaps, Madam President, you might wish to change your uniform. It is hot work, I think, slamming the ghetto door, it takes out the starch.” Down the long full length of her nose Bena held Elizabeth’s eye.
“You must listen to what I say now.” Bena’s eye was dry and unwinking, “There are many silly things we will say to one another, sometimes rude, but that is translation, we will learn. But the Spirit of Meanness, you know, She can have no place in our business. You would like, Elizabeth, I am sure, to dry up and change.” The tap dripped and a mouse was heard on the pantry floor. Bena was suddenly kind, “Perhaps, my Maude, you would be dear enough to your sister to help her to a fresh costume,” With a wave of the arms she rolled them through the doorway, “Perhaps something fuller. And warm would be nice.”
Discovering an unclaimed cheese straw among the plates on the table and offering it, Bena drew near to Ziski and Katya, “So, Witold,” She poked the pastry into his mouth, “The Who is Them, and the Why is Them, because you need a job and They can pay you. And Katya, a job for you will maybe keep you from the streets. So, did I find you a princess, Witold?” She accepted his deep bow with impatience, wasps could return with alarming suddenness, “Good. Yes. You must listen then,” The tips of her fingers brushed the Saint Catherine at her breast, “We can do this thing because we know how to do it. We will do it, Maestro, because you must make music. We have to do it because Katya is soon becoming a bag lady. I myself will do it…” She paused to listen for approach, “I will do it because these sisters amuse me and I think that between them they share a good heart. We will play with them and they will play with us. Yes?”
“So, except for the Pied Piper here we’re not into this for the love of music, or anything crass like that?” Katya could’ve used another cheese straw herself, “You’re into this so you can keep your mitts on her husband, aren’t you?”
Ziski pretended shock and teased Bena with a wounded look, “It is for love that you do this? Well…” He gave a little shrug, “…as long as it is love, it will come sometime to music. As long as it is love you will care, eh, Bena?”
“Well, I think we’re doomed. This’s downhill from the top. If this…” Stabbing a finger at Bena, Katya decided it was best to be clear, “…this gypsy, this Madwoman of Budapest, thinks she’s going to snatch Elizabeth Preston’s husband by pretending she’s Anastasia, we are going to go down in flames. Belly up. Doomed, I say.” She checked for Ziski’s attention and turned back, “I’ve said I’ll do my part, but I’m warning you, I’m not into this if you’re not going to behave. So, what’s your agenda, Bena?”
“Aacch, agenda, my Katya, so businesslike already, even though you must still call names. Perhaps you will have a nice tailored suit to wear and give up this bad habit. You know, my friend, that I would not claim to be Russian even if it would give me back my childhood. And I do not wish to ‘snatch’ George Preston. Really, my Katya… He is my friend. Witold is my friend. I have friends, Katya, I do not need to steal them. You must understand why this worrys you, but not now. We must know that we are agreed. Yes?” Bena cocked her head to listen and then with solemn ceremony offered her hands which were clasped affectionately by Ziski and reluctantly by Katya into a stack of cabal and she said, “For Music!”, and Ziski said, “For Love!”, and Katya said, “For godsake!”, pulled free and started clearing up plates.
“I don’t understand these people, Maude. D’ you think we’re safe with them?” Stripped, patted dry, and spraying herself, Elizabeth ran circles about her bedroom, waving things at her sister, “I mean, half the time I don’t know what they’re saying and it’s foolish to keep asking, the whole tone changes. And…” She held her breath and drew a line for a lip, “…speaking of tones… I don’t think much of yours. We are not ethnics, Maude, and we are certainly not the Chosen People, you know who they are. And I don’t like Wasp, it’s a cheap word. D’ you think this grey?” She twirled a skirt hanger to call her sister’s attention to a slate flannel A-line, “It’s warm. Or…” She twirled the identical fabric in box pleats.
“Yes.” Half squatting to rest on a slipper chair while her sister flew in and out of closets assembling a fresh outfit, Maude didn’t say yes again till she saw a plain white blouse, and had to heave herself up, when Elizabeth got lost among scarves and shawls and wraps, to rummage out a simple navy cardigan, all through the course of which, Elizabeth never stopped talking. “Will you shut up, Lizzie,” Maude was calm and elder, “You’re giving me a headache.”
“I think you’ve had rather a lot of wine.” She could provide almost any painkiller, but not yet.
“Don’t patronize me. It’s not the wine, it’s you. Your grasp on reality… I just don’t know. You’ve either got your hands on its throat, or you’re pulling its hair. You aren’t very good at embracing, are you, Lizzie? You just won’t go with the flow, you have to wag and wave and push upstream because you’re the Princess and it’s your game. Well, you need to grow up and stop being rude to people who didn’t go to school with you. It’s not just because you’re a pain in the ass, but you could get seriously hurt – people are nastier these days – and believe it or not, I wouldn’t like to see that happen.”
“Oh.” Elizabeth was offended, “So now I wag and wave, do I? I don’t think I know what you mean.”
Patience exhausted, Maude subsided again into a chair, “I should’ve wrapped the cord around your neck. I could’ve.”
I killed her. Elizabeth shrank so suddenly from the thought that she dropped the skirt she was buttoning at the waist. Her early, backward birth had been attended only by a nine year old Maude who coped with furnace and water and towels and didn’t have time to run to the barn for her father. Their father. Their mother, whose heart went with the last push. Maude had pulled and cut and washed her baby sister and never spoken a word about it, but when Elizabeth was old enough to understand the circumstances spoken of by others, spoken of in sorrow at the pity of it all, spoken of in wonderment at Maude’s precocious management, she knew that her sister blamed her. It had come at last, the accusation her sister had never spoken.
Knowing what her sister was thinking, what she’d always thought, Maude pretended not to notice, and hauling herself up again, headed for the hall, “Pull up your skirt and get a move on, you’ve got guests. I’m going to find an aspirin.”
“Oh, as many as you like, Maude, the bathroom cabinet, there’s extra-strength and coated things and… Uum, I have to change these shoes. I’ll be right along.”
When the Board returned to the table to make up some lists and put down some facts, the general mood had quieted to a somewhat embarrassed preoccupation with the details of headings, with experiments in penmanship and proper pencil alignment. Ziski brought out his pocket diary, a scuffed black push-button notebook, and read out for Katya useful names and numbers: art councils and officers, associations and boards, unions of celli and managers of halls.
Katya took the facts, checking on spellings and area codes.
Maude scribbled names and teased for bits of gossip.
Bena made a list of all the men she knew and some women who should gladly contribute money or favour, and if not gladly, she knew quite enough about them to prevail.
Elizabeth strained to be attentive and made herself draw a few charts to avoid chewing her pencil. Terrorized by what she had set in motion, she had no idea of what to grab hold of just to keep balance, let alone control. I was the one, she sniffed, who had the idea of an orchestra. I was the Inspiration. Pimpush, dahling! Bitch. Elizabeth surreptitiously glared around the table till her pencil stalled. I asked her if she knew any musical people. And he’s giving out the orders and she’s writing them down and god knows what Maude’s doing__ lists of mean things to say, most likely__ and Pushpin, what’s she writing? I’ll bet it’s not even English.
“Whoa, Maestro!” Maude flailed her writing arm, “Whose wife’s sister’s married to the Chairman of the Council? If she’s the woman I think she is, he’s not long for this world, poor bugger, she’s done-in two already. Council’ll need a new Chair before the year’s out, with that woman’s record. But hey, don’t mind me, use him while he’s still warm. What’s next, Wit?”
Bea had hunted the Yellow Pages for a salon that could fit her in, a place she’d never been, that wouldn’t know her from Adam and wouldn’t be shocked by her request for a colouring. And did they do a facial? She’d planned on something like a toasted bagel at the mall after, and then a search for some half-decent underpants in Sears, but when she emerged with a head of hair and a glow she hadn’t had in twenty years, she took herself instead to a smart lunch with a tablecloth.
Handed a menu, she offered a smile and asked for an old-fashioned, but seeing the flat eyes of the girl skid in a panic from the infection of age, she was quick to apologize, “I’m sorry, a glass of white wine. Could you? Please.” Opening the menu, she answered impatience, “I’ll take a moment. If you don’t mind?” Watching the waitress sulk to the bar, she thought, cheap shiney goods, and cringed for fear of having said it. Seeing no flinch in the narrow back, she wished she had.
Why don’t I have the nerve? I should’ve been born with it, God knows nothing’s ever stopped my mother from saying whatever comes into her head. Every mean thought she has just pops out with the time of day. ‘Will you have a piece of Dutch apple? Oh, there’s no point in you worrying about your hips. I’d do a covered pie for myself, but I made this for you, you don’t want the extra pastry.’ And Katherine’s no better, always bringing up things nobody wants to hear. It’s all about sex and how hard-done-by she is. It’s David’s fault her marriage is falling apart, it’ll be everybody’s fault her picture fell down, and it’s always my fault she was born. I couldn’t be more guilty if I tried. “I’ll have the chicke… no, the veal parmegian, please. Yes, I will have another glass, thank you.”
When she’d finished up with a lemon mousse that she’d gladly have eaten twice, she went off to search cosmetic counters for a shade of lipstick, any shade of lipstick that wasn’t her inevitable orangee. She knew that the counter girls were painted for the sake of the product and for the dreadful lighting, but really, talk about dressing mutton, I didn’t know the circus was in town. The second glass of wine had made her bold, “I expect you do parties?” And of course they did, nail parties and make-over parties, a friendly circle and a nice refreshment table, and if she was really serious about saving her beauty, they were going to be holding their first injection party ASAP and would she… She escaped with a shampoo sample and drove back to Bert’s garage and took a drink of rye and gingerale standing in the office corner where there was no thought of sitting for the grease. She drove home just at dark, figuring George would’ve had to retreat.
And he had. Dawdling into the wharf behind the hardware, George had watched a pair of lads toss the scrap of Bea’s dock into a pick-up backed to the riverbank. But there was no sign of Bea, and the house looked shut. When his shopping was done, he chanced a call from a payphone, and after ten empty rings, took heart that at least she didn’t have a damned fool answering machine. When she’s not there, she’s not there. He dawdled out again and the lads were gone and he watched the current nudge itself around the point unhindered by any evidence that he had ever been there. I could hang around for a while, have a drink, eat something, try again. The thought of another cautious putt-putting return in the dark didn’t appeal again so soon. Last night with Bob Ross’s punch in him, he’d been well enough warmed to enjoy the slow run up-river, his pulse tuned to the bow wave, his mind on Bea. And a young lad wouldn’t have thought twice about a repeat, but George had frozen peas and juice to think of, he’d phone later.
Bea had to phone her daughter. She didn’t want to. In fact, she frankly didn’t care if she never spoke to Katherine again, never saw her again. You don’t mean that. I do. I think I’d be quite satisfied enough to know she’s alive. After the other night, I’d just as soon not have to be bothered knowing her anymore. Isn’t that awful, your own daughter? Goes for my mother, too. Why do I have to care? Because you do. Do what? Do have to? Do care! But I don’t care. I certainly don’t care to have to. Oh Lord, woman! Just call her, she’s your daughter. Yes.
George got his juice and his peas into the freezer before he tried calling Bea again. When he did, the line was busy.
What Bea got was Katherine’s machine, “…I’m not home, I may never be home again. I don’t know who’ll feed the pitbulls. Have a nice day,” and after a hiss, “I’m fine, Mother. Really.”
see pg.239
(Despite a thundering hang-over and a very dim memory of the previous evening, Martin had begun nagging about bus schedules around noon with his second cup of instant coffee, when he realized that that was what he was drinking. In the pain of dislocation, the awkwardness of waking in a strange bed, in a strange house, in a strange town, amongst strangers, he had found himself translating the gut-strung tension of never having dared drop-kick one of his mother’s corgis into the act of balancing his coffee mug at the table’s edge. But Paul’s mother’s decision to drive down to a sister, shop, visit and stay over, had relieved his burden of anxiety, that fear of incurring maternal censure that good boys are trained to. When she had finally gone out the door the third time with enough keys, Martin had been so relieved he asked for more coffee and got chatty. Wrapped in warm gossip, time called truce till tomorrow and the issue of Katherine’s betrayal.
The day then went well. Deciding to be Christian about it and cobble a silk purse out of a sow’s ear of a situation, Paul toured Martin through Bannock on a walk to the liquor store for something they could drink with the pork he’d dug out of his mother’s freezer. He pointed out a cul-de-sac here, told of a youthful indiscretion there, charmed Martin into the belief that his condescension was acceptable. And so, the long slow simmering of chops in mushroom soup, Martin agreeably peeling potatoes in a haze of white wine and cigarettes, the smoke of a joint, the weight of food, the story telling, at last melted into a pile of cushions laid before the wood fire, and although Paul thought Martin tiresome and rather too girlish, he did have quite a decent cock so what the hell, and the heat and wine finally silenced Martin to moans when he came in Paul’s mouth. Then it was Tuesday. )
TUESDAY
Tuesday morning, Darla made it to her office, shut the door and nursed a head-splitting case of the dooms. She’d never before failed to get a hangover into the office on Monday, never had she taken advantage of the boss’s absence to give herself a break. To do so had certainly not crossed her mind Saturday evening when Whatsisname, Clarence, had called to report he’d dropped ‘The Big Guy’ up at the lake – “By Himself! Only One Bag!” – and they, apparently, were expected to wait on further instructions – Chain of command thing, Clarence’d wait to hear from her hearing from The Big Guy. Darla had fully expected to be up front and spit-polished, headphone and laptop at the ready, when George signalled in from the outback Monday morning. She’d had no intention of funking her duty, failing to appear at her post, that was job suicide these days; cries of treason at your back and you’re hanging from a fence before the coffee’s brewed.
But, as the winning goalie, Darla’d paraded her girls from tailgate to tailgate after their Sunday league final; beer and buffalo wings were normal, it had likely been the B52s. So, Tuesday, as the guilt ridden loser, Darla had to take back control of her systems from that fascist fuck in Personnel, who she knew damned well answered yessir nosir to Security. She swallowed codeine with a big cappuchino, and settled in to sweat on George’s couch with her back to the scotch. When the phone rang she was thinking of donating her body to science, if there was anything left when they found her.
By Tuesday morning Katherine was rubbed raw. Sam said he had to be up to Manooth by noon. Did she want to come? He’d told her Sunday night his pickup was up there sitting on a hoist, nothing wrong with her, had a nice new tailpipe and a lick of grease, but the fucking hoist was stuck, been stuck since Friday, couldn’t get her down. “Probably have to take a crowbar to the situation, one way or another, fuckers’re either stupid or malicious. If we get her down, you can drive yourself back. Don’t know how long.”
Of course she wanted to go, she was hungry for landscape, but with this whisker-burnt and bludgeoned crotch she knew she’d be walking bow-legged and she wasn’t into hanging around some grease-pit with a bunch of smirking rednecks. So, if he didn’t mind, he could go sort it out and then they could do the retrieval thing tomorrow, because she was going to take a long bath, and would he pick up a carton of her smokes and some diet gingerale and get some more Jack and…
Handing him her keys, she wondered for a cold moment if she was crazy to trust this man whose body was almost all she knew of him. He’d been silent mostly when she talked, grunting approval or laughter with a toss of his head. Answers to her questions came slowly, some not at all, guarded with an ambiguity that left her uncertain if he was a bit dim, or lying. He did tell her he’d built this place out of a boat shed, circling a hand at the walls around them, all by himself, apparently. But questions of cost, of the affordability of what she recognized as expensive, even lavish materials, he dismissed with a shrug and said it was the labour made the difference.
She hesitated. She stared at the keys in his hand still suspended between them until his plaid flannel shirt and blue denims melted and churned, till the edges of her eyes rounded the room and grew in the light. She saw a hen on a nest, stared it into a peacock, then let Sam slide back into sight. “And you might as well get a couple big bottles of a decent white, reasonable, but French and a… What? Can’t you… Oh. Never mind, I’ll give you some money. Where’s my bag? Find my bag!”
Soaking in Sam’s tub, with the window at her elbow affording a long rising view of white birch and silver poplar naked but for a few tags of yellow leaf, backed by rusted cedars and over-topped by blue-black spruce, with far off above all else, a monstrous twisted pine holding a Group of Seven pose that made her grin every time she looked at it, Katherine fell in love, realized she was in neck deep, and she wasn’t thinking about the water level which needed a constant trickle to match the drain.
But by four o’clock she’d rechecked twice for possibles amongst the stack of beer empties, having squeezed rye and bourbon dregs into her first cups of coffee and an airline vodka into a later cup of tea. She had six cigarettes left and Sam had her car. If he doesn’t get his tight little Indian ass back soon, all this good sex is gonna feel like rape. She swallowed some codeine with a bit of boiled water, stuffed the firebox with old elm and heavy maple, furled herself in the eiderdown quilt from Sam’s bed and clutching her make-up bag, settled to the long table to make use of her time and get a little painting done.
Once he’d settled business with Darla, convincing her it wasn’t Alzheimer’s and that he trusted her to mind the shop until he decided on his next move, George spent a happy afternoon setting up proper camp; priming the pump, fiddling cocks and banging on pipes till water flowed, shaking down the stove pipes, pruning his way to the privy and back. So, it was sun-down when he sat himself to the telephone with coffee and a highball to ring up Bea, “I was down yesterday.”
“I heard.”
“D’you mind?”
“It’s not for me to… No. I don’t mind.”
“Good. I’ve taken a liberty.”
“Oh, dear.”
“I want to save you the trip down to get your mother. I’ve ordered the car to pick her up on Saturday. How’s that? And Darla, she’s my secretary, she’ll call and arrange the time once she knows you’ve spoken to her. Your mother. And Darla… you have to meet her, she’s marvelous. Or did you, at the reception? No? Well, you will. She has very kindly offered to accompany Tillie. D’ you mind? Your mother, I mean, she did introduce herself over the biscuits the other night. Anyway, Darla thought Clarence, the driver, he’s not much of a talker, might seem a bit spooky to an elderly woman trapped in the backseat of a moving car, and she wouldn’t mind, Darla wouldn’t, coming along for the ride. Rather generous I thought. She says she owes me one, something about not making it in yesterday, most unlike her, sounded a bit shaky. While the cat’s away, eh? Anyway, what d’ you think? Okay? __Beatrice? __Hello?”
Her chest felt light, suddenly her belly felt airy and weightless, her back seemed to arch of itself, she felt strong and well-defended, but habit took her and Bea fell to worrying, “This Darla, I don’t know…” Is she young? “Mother’s so… odd, lately, and a strange car, well, that might…” Send her right round the bend, she’ll think I sold her to the Home! “She’s not always herself these days. You might not have noticed, but she gets a little… absent, and it’s sometimes all I can do to…” Manage not to strangle her, “…to cope. I do wish you’d thought to ask first.” Bea winced from her own words. Why can’t you just be grateful? He’ll hang up now and that’s the last you’ll hear from him.
“I am sorry, Bea. I apologize once again. Unthinking and selfish of me, but I so much want to do something for you, make up for that godawful reception, for busting up your dock. I feel like I’ve brought you nothing but trouble and I wanted to repay you for a wonderful evening on Sunday. You looked so unhappy at the thought of the drive down and back in Saturday traffic, it seemed like the perfect answer. It’s no big deal, Bea, it doesn’t have to happen if you think it’s too much for your mother, but it is just a friend offering a ride. She can think it’s a taxi ride, without Darla, if you like, though Darla’s quite good company. She’s a marvel with older people.”
Obviously, she’s younger than older people. I wouldn’t have to take the car on the road. It should be Katherine’s place to do these things! Why me? “A marvel, eh? Well, maybe Mother would like it. A car with a real chauffeur, it’d just about suit the size of her ego these days. She ends up thinking she’s the Queen, maybe she’ll behave.”
“Good! Then you don’t mind, I’m so glad. I’ve still to think up something for the Rosses. Music, he said.”

Wearing sex on his sleeve, Martin huddled in a plastic booth in a Chinese restaurant in downtown Bannock, flipping through the leaves of juke titles in the chrome box fixed to the plastic wall. Country he’d mostly never heard of, except for some of Dolly’s tunes and Johnny Cash’s ‘Boy Named Sue’, which nobody on the planet could’ve missed the year middle-america invented irony, which was, of course, the whole blatant symbolic and significant core of the present moment considering that his entire personal system of gender identification had gone up the spout. Yesterday he’d still been… Well, he had been! To this breathless, heart-hollowing shock of desire, only yesterday he’d been a stranger, a virgin to love!
He’d begun nagging before noon about bus schedules, sitting at Pauls’ mother’s kitchen table swallowing bitter coffee through a thundering headache and a very dim memory of the Arlen Hotel, desperate to be gone, to flee the mortifying awkwardness of having wakened in a strange bed, in a strange house, in a strange town. Dumped among strangers by that dick-driven bitch! She’d tossed his bag into the back of Brad’s car before disappearing into the night with her Indian, but Martin’s emergency vodka was still tucked under the spare in her trunk, and he’d known without question, having wakened to walls of bible text and the howl of a tv preacher, that there wasn’t a drink to be had in this house. When told he’d missed the only bus of the day, he’d flushed with fear of a snapping nerve, an involuntary violence that would hurl his coffee mug at a plaster blessing, a needlepoint homily, and he’d watched himself balance his slopping mug at the table’s edge, daring it to fall. But before it could come to destruction, Paul’s mother had announced that she was driving down to visit a sister, to shop and stay over, and when she’d finally gone out the door for the third time with enough keys, Martin’s burden of anxiety, that fear of incurring maternal censure that a good boy caught kicking his mother’s corgis becomes trained to, when that burden lifted like a blown cloud, he went all gracious with relief, “Well hey, suppose we might as well turn it into a silk purse, eh? Must be something to do in this godforsaken hole. What’s to see in beautiful Bannock?” He’d rescued his mug, drunk up, and the day’d gone well enough then.
His body feeling oddly long, endless and watery, Martin slid his butt on the rim of the naugahyde bench to stretch his legs far under the plastic table to trap Paul’s sneakers between his boots. Jerking his feet back under the bench to free them, Paul’s head rocked forward over the table, which gave him the chance to say hard and flat, “Not here,” and rocking back, he turned away to swing his legs up on the bench and prop his back against the wall. Two girls in the back booth adding fries to their hips, two boys watching over their coke glasses, making noises with their straws, knees pumping with hormones, old Hing on a stool at the counter, newspaper spread, a cup of his best boiled coffee to hand, Stuart the Moody Loner pressed to the glass in the window booth, waiting for the bus to stop, for the wife to come back__ nobody’d noticed, Paul breathed again. He wanted to moan, but that’d just attract attention. Oh, Christ, get me out of this, one blow-job and I’ve created a monster. You knew this’d happen. You knew it the moment you laid eyes on him. I did. So, why… Fuck the why! I was horny. Yah. Asshole.
Of course there hadn’t been anything to do in beautiful Bannock except walk to the liquor store for a bottle of something to match the hairy pork Paul had dug from the freezer. Over the hill and down the street and there was pretty much the town, smelling of diesel farted from logging trucks and of pot pourri leaked from a dozen shops like a small craft warning. Gaping at yet another window display of knitted loons and wooden teapots, Martin had sketched a shudder, “There really enough tourists to buy all this crap?”
“Yah, eventually. What happens is, they wander around and look at it, but they’re not so stupid they haven’t seen it in the malls back home for half the price. So, it’s the locals buy it, people like my mother, ‘cause they don’t know any better and they get it home and the wheels fall off, or it doesn’t hold water and the dog won’t stop barking at it. So, they have a yard sale, or give it to the poor people, who have more sense than to buy it in the first place and have their own yard sales, and then everybody gets all smug and superior when some tourist pays two bucks for it for the cottage. Tourists think they’re ‘antiquing’, screwing the locals; locals think they’re ‘destination marketing’, screwing the tourists. It’s your global economy thing, not just made in Japan, global crap, big business.”

If not here, then WHERE? Screaming from the tenderness of blood-flushed skin, Martin was close to hysteria with confusion. I’m an animal, a disgusting animal, I want to rut and bite and sweat juice and lick it and… oh god!!! His knees beat together under the table, his hands clenched his wrists to hold his belly in his lap, his mouth pursed and he tried not to rock.
It wasn’t the first time. Once, at fifteen, Martin had found himself parked up a dead-end road with a man he’d thought just generous and kind. Being driven home from an evening of unexpected Shakespeare, Troilus in a g-string, a hand suddenly resting on the crease of his houndstooth summer wools, he had thought, Oh! and when the man asked where, he had said the next left, left again, it doesn’t go anywhere. Neither did the rest of it. When the man asked if he kissed, Martin realized he’d never imagined that and said no. When the man asked if Martin minded as his head went down to his lap, he realized he hadn’t imagined that either. He said no. He had wanted to suppose it was his unpreparedness, his lack of imagination, that kept him from rising to the occasion, god knew his own hand never suffered rejection, but he suspected, as he looked down on a bald spot in the moonlight, that age had something to do with it and when that thought jumped on the thick waves of his friend Pete’s hair, he had backed away in a fluster before anything could come of it and said he guessed he was tired and maybe it was best to get home. He had examined himself in the bathroom mirror, as he’d read heroines did, found no evidence and went to bed figuring the future would take care of itself. Well, it hadn’t until now, last night, this morning when he had wakened with a lusting heat that rolled him onto a sleeping Paul demanding saliva and sweat and sperm in a frenzy of making up lost time. Lost time? Damned near half my life I’ve missed this! And other people know? How many people know? Martin ran his hand up his nape, shook his hair, and questioned the guest list, “How many of us are there?”
Paul’s eyes were shut in prayer. Oh, Lord, why did I get the virgin? It’s a dream, just a dream, let it be a dream. It’s not a dream. Please let the white slavers take him. Or me. Better me. I could use the rest on a slow boat to China. Yoo hoo, slavers! Take me, take me, get me out of here. Speed he’s going, he’ll be in full drag by Thursday, and planning a church wedding by the weekend. Please make him go away. I’ll put money in the plate next Sunday, I promise. Don’t wheedle.
That Zeke thing that happened, Martin’s lips pursed in remembered disapproval, that… that masher business in the diner, in Peterborough, that wasn’t love, or anything, that was assault, this’s the real thing. Je__zuz, YAH! This is love! This must be love! I’m in love! I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love with a wonderful__GUY! I’m a new person. It’s true, it does change you. I feel like a bride. Oh!!! Martin squirmed and sweated onto the naugahyde. That business in the diner, that was a hate crime.
This is not flattering. Paul peeked through his eyelashes. Well… No, it’s not! I can do without this in the home town, y’ know, especially not with Snow White in bikini briefs. You kissed the frog, Polliwog. I blew the frog. He opened his eyes, “Listen, Martin, what about Katherine? How soon d’ you two have to get back to the city? You should call her at Sam’s, they’ll have to come up for air sometime. I can find a way to get you out there, maybe Brad’s available and he and I could drive you out and drop you off for the ride back with Katherine. Yah? Good plan? I’ll phone us a Brad and we’ll get you on your way home. He’ll have to get back to the yard with the truck before the day’s out, I’ll call Cashway. What d’ you say?” Paul had slipped from the booth and held to the end of the table with his thumbs.
“Look, I know it’s been hell for you, dumped on strangers, abandoned by a dangerous woman who wears you like a handbag, sneered at by a self-righteous Indian who’s about as likely to be a Kelly as a Cree, and now I’ve gone and spoiled what could’ve been… well, maybe… I don’t know, you and me, friends, maybe. But I wronged you. I had no right, I had no reason and I… uh… can’t apologize enough and I promise that it’ll never happen again.”
His bottom lip between teeth, Martin stared up at Paul, his eyes growing round and shiny with forgiveness, “It’s okay, darling, you’re just afraid of committment.”
“Je_zuz! To Emergency, yah. It’s a very small town, Marty, they won’t take to anything they don’t have to. I’d as soon not get my nuts cut.”
“Are you trying to deny what we have?” Ironic, in control, Martin’s lust so drenched Paul’s words in honey that their obvious intention melted on the tongue, and he thought it sweet of his new love to tease with such imagination.
“Oh, JEEZUZ!” Blowing through clenched teeth, Paul rocked on his thumbs and fought for kindness. “Listen, I can’t do this. I’ve just run home from my life, I’m living in my mother’s house again, I might as well be sixteen again, except I don’t have the ass for it, I can’t do this. I’m sorry I got you into this, but you’re just gonna have to go work it out… however, wherever… You’ve got friends, eh? Katherine’s your friend, you got the city, the city’s good, a good place to be, everthing’s there, you name it, somebody’s doin’ it. Enh, you want to be sensitive, do a Proust thing, pick a nice place and go sit around with a pad and pencil. If you want the pretty ones, learn to draw. If you want the rough stuff, just keep staring at crotches like you’re doing now and you can count on gettin’ something rammed in your mouth. We gotta go now, call Sam’s place, find Brad. Right? Get you safe home.”
“I want to lick the…”
“SHUT, the fuck up!” Hissing with exasperation, spinning from the table, Paul scrabbled enough change from his pockets for two cups of coffee and stretched to stack it on the lip of the closed cash drawer, knowing Hing saw all, and headed for the door with a wide come-on sweep of his arm.

Katya and Bena got to Maude’s for coffee about four and settled familiarly to the table. “If you’ve figured out that my sister is nuts,” Maude got right to the point as she filled the kettle from the tap, “You get the free rug-steaming and the encyclopedias. She’s a dead serious manic Leo with a moon up her skirt and stars in her belfry. Grade A, extra large, free-range, brown-shelled ego. I’ve known her from birth, hers. I rest my case. Any defence? Who’s writing this down? Who’s… oh, me. Well, I’m doing coffee. So, Katya, you’re manager, you manage. You got paper? Oh, Lord! Well, forget it, we’ll remember.” Maude fought efficiently with the coffee things and eyeballed the other two over her shoulder. “So, what d’ you say? Do we let her get away with this?”
Bena approved of this bare, white-enamalled kitchen for its absence of any evidence of competence or craft to interfere with the facts. “The Princess, yes,” Bena sketched a curtsy with her cigarette held in amber and gold, “Can we teach to her the duty of a princess?” Pencilled brows disappeared into a felt cloche.
“And that would be…?” Katya stooped to play it straight, “__Bena? What’s a princess’s duty, what’s the form? Beauty? Lovely skin, at least. Nice clothes. What else?”
“Acchh! My Katya, such a Lutheran you are, this form and function, such a silly idea. A princess is to be nice. That is her function. Her form, it is easy, it does not matter, squat is as good as skinny if she is rich with money and blood. Blood only? Beauty does not hurt. But nice, always nice, that is not so easy. Your sister, my Maude, I think she has not had good teaching.”
“Havergal and hats, as I’ve always said. It annoys the hell out of her.” Clattering mugs and spoons to the table, Maude poked Katya with the creamer and pointed at the fridge before turning back to pour from her steaming kettle, “No, you’re right. All I’ve ever done is annoy the hell out of her. And she went off to school to get superior and she got a degree in it, knowing how to send things back. And that’s it, really. She’s got superior pretty much turned into an art form. Performance art, eh? Grand Damery. Trouble is, she gets on her horse, rounds up the villagers, and then she doesn’t know her ass from a hole in the ground about what to do next. You’ve seen what can happen. Oh, dear…” A hand to her breast, Maude plunked the coffee pot down, “This symphony thing is just another crazy stunt, isn’t it? We’re not going to let her make us do this, are we? __Are we? __Ladies? __Don’t everyone speak at once. I have a weak heart here.”
Katya had found the sugar in the cupboard and carried it with the milk to the table, “I don’t think I mind that she’s as offensive as she is. She doesn’t for a minute think she’s offensive, she just thinks she’s right and everybody else’s too stupid to have figured it out like she has. She has no idea that other people restrain the impulse to pillage. The question being, if I’m not mistaking you two, isn’t whether she can control us, but whether we want to control her. Yes? Am I managing?”
Picking up the coffee pot, she poured three mugs full and cast an appraising eye at Maude, “You are all right, aren’t you? Do you really have a problem you’re not telling us about? We’re certainly not getting into any skipping contest if you’re too short-winded. We can’t have anybody dropping dead, your sister’s got a bad enough reputation already, there’d be an investigation. Can you imagine Bena in a witness box? We’d all hang.”
“Oh, no, no, I’m okay.” Maude patted her breastbone and fluttered her hand as a fan, “I have to confess, my sister scares the hell out of me, her enthusiasms are dangerous, you’ve seen how far she’ll go, she can bring the house down around our ears and I’d hate to see anybody get hurt.”
“Aacchh, what is there to hurt, anymore. This country has so much beaten itself with a stick for being provincial, it should be hiding in a safe-house. Perhaps our Princess might think about very large hats, they make a focus.”
“For a sniper, sure, Bena. I can’t say I haven’t wanted her dead, but not nearly as often as she thinks I have. But look, you two, you’ve seen her in action doing her knife act… She’s nuts! She really is. She really did that, and she’ll do it again. She’ll con a whole new cast, rewrite the script, change location, do her stunt, and blow up the ammunition dump on her way out the door. She’s got a short, very obsessive attention span. I suppose I might’ve slapped her too hard when she finally got born. She was feet-first, you know, and I swear she had them planted either side of Mother’s womb. She’s trouble, she’s an embarassment of energies, but things do happen, things get done. I just think we’re in danger of a big mess here, if she’s at the top of the heap and in control of the money, and she’s going to be, isn’t she? if she’s the one who scares it up first.”
“How much do we need?”
“Good question. You’re the manager, how much do we need?”
“How would I know? This’s going to take a lot of work, you know, research and…”
“Witold tells me that he must have fifty thousand dollars. He will take twenty. I have told him. I have friends, I have asked. And the others, they will have twenty to share, and it is divided by their services, which means the number of rehearsals and concerts. I am told this in good faith.”
Maude winked at Katya, “There’s your research. What else did you ask, Bena? How’s your coffee?”
“It is delicious, very european. Did my Katya not bring little tarts? I saw bags.”
“Oh, god yes! In my string bag, not tarts, some pulla. Put your oven on, Maude. How did I manage to forget that? Where’s my bag? I’m losing control, I’m having a break-down, my memory, it’s Alz…”
“To what temperature will the oven go, my Katya, and where is your bag? There, at your feet. You must stop this flip-flopping, you are sure of what you know and unsure of what you do not know, it is all the same thing, what you do not know you will find out. You are old when you think that anything you don’t know is something you have forgotten. Do we need a tin dish to put these wonderful european widow with a house-of-her-own buns on?”
“Here, I’ve got this,” Maude produced her crumby baking pan from the oven and accepted a half dozen sticky coils of bun from Katya, “So, what else did you ask, Bena?” She slid the pan into the oven, licked her fingers and plunked herself at the table, “Who’re you consulting anyway, Issac Stern?”
Unimpressed by a startled, bridling Bena, Katya rolled her eyes, “Oh, sure. I would’ve thought he was dead by now. But then I’ve forgotten whether he is or not. Which means, if I’m not old, it hasn’t happened yet. Is that how it works, Bena? If I don’t think I’m old, he doesn’t die. Unless he actually has, and you’ve forgotten.”
“All right, already. Doesn’t matter if she’s talking to Guy Lombardo. She’s talking forty thousand so far, and I want to know how much farther. I don’t care if it’s psychic, or old love letters, I want to know what it’s going to cost us and where we find the money before my sister does. She’ll go to George for it at some point, we could be eaten alive. We can’t count on his resistance, after this spanking thing, he’s too much a gentleman not to pay for his pleasure. She’ll see to that, Lizzie will.”
“She won’t go begging just like that, will she? I’d say she’s too proud.” Katya twiddled her spoon, “Then again, she is nuts, as you say.”
“Aacchh, my George, my poor George,” Fingering a tiny veil on the face of her cloche, Bena shook her head for a long sad moment, “She will use him and she will hurt him. We will not. We will be kind to Mister George Preston, very kind. And we will use him first. My Maude, he is your brother-in-law, he is your friend, I think, and he is what you say, a gentleman. You must speak to him now.”
“He’s up at the lake. I have that number. I’ll phone.” With a lurch from the table, Maude hustled through the swing door to the telephone stand, wrestled a beaten notebook from the drawer, hunted a number, “Help yourselves to more coffee! You watching your buns, Katya?” Dialed and waited. “No George!” She wagged her head as she sat back at the kitchen table, “We could lose this one.”
“Where is this lake?”
“Muskoka.”
“That is north?”
“Unhuh.”
“The road? There is a road?”
“Oh, yes, there’s a big road.”
“A car. We will need a car. And a map. Yes. You will come, Maude? Katya, I’m not sure it is so necessary that you must come.”
“What! Where d’ you think you’re going to find a car? You don’t even drive. And why shouldn’t I come, go? It’s the money I’m supposed to be managing, after all. You don’t get the road trips just to go see your boyfriend, y’ know. D’ you drive, Maude?”
“I’ve still my licence, just in case, but I haven’t had a car, haven’t driven since I came here. I’m not sure I’d trust me.”
“Ziski. He will drive us. He will tell us what more it will cost to make this orchestra and he will meet Mister George. Charm! They will adore each other and we will have your sister surrounded.”
Sam got back about seven with an extra-large, double-cheese and bacon pizza, a box of beer and a jug of raw red, no French white, no gingerale and, apparently, no cigarettes, until he saw a murderous look and understood that she didn’t take to teasing, “Couldn’t manage it all at once, smokes’re out in the truck.”
“The truck! Where the fuck’s my car? You…”
“Truck needed a run, didn’t she? Had to make sure those assholes hadn’t been messin’ with her,” Sam tossed Katherine’s keys to the table, “Your car’s okay. Like you said, we’ll get her tomorrow. She’s all locked up. Those boys’re too stupid to get into her without bustin’ glass.” Catching the flicker of fear before it turned to rage, he raised and showed a palm to hold her for a moment, “Just teasin’, they won’t touch her,” He grinned and let go a snort, “Told ‘em it’s stolen, scared the shit out of ‘em. Got her tucked up all safe, nobody’ll go near her till I say so.”
Katherine found that all she could do was stare at him. I’m trapped in a bad movie, a really bad movie, and we’re all gonna die in a hail of bullets, Bonnie and Cochise bite the big one. Okay, stay cool, no sense in spooking him. What would Clint do in a situation like this? “Where’s the bourbon?”
He had intended to say the store didn’t have any, but he could see now she wasn’t likely to let that go by, “I lost some money.”
She eyed the denim hung tight from his hipbones, “What, it fell out of those pockets?”
“Pool. I went in the Arlen for a game, and I got suckered. That fish Donovan’s been takin’ lessons. Little pus ball gave me one for ten and took me one for fifty.”
“You lost that money playing pool?”
“I said it.”
“You are some hustler. A real pool hall Indian, eh? Jesus!” She was disgusted, but she couldn’t help that the sullen hostility, the raised chin, the tensed muscles were making her nipples hard and her eye strayed back to tight denim, “Well, open that, then.” And when he did, she went down to it for a couple of minutes. Then standing abruptly, she grabbed up the wine, twisted the cap with a practiced wrist and went hunting glasses in the dish rack, “Might as well get rid of my stomach lining first, give the bacon grease something to stick to.”
Sam got the stove good and hot, Katherine dropped the quilt, and between slabs of dripping pizza and tumblers of red wine, they groped and bit and licked and guzzled; lust carrying them on through half the beer before the ringing telephone provided a welcome break for screaming skin.
“Aren’t we being a little precious with the unlisted telephone, Sambo?” Paul’s voice came through loud and irritated, “I had to wait for the young Brad to get his ass home from work, take a shower and down a couple brew before he could manage to pick up the phone to give me your goddamned number. There really that many guys after your balls?”
“It’s all the women after my cock, y’ little runt. What d’you want? I got man things to do here.”
“What, fart? We’re comin’ out. Brad’s driving. We’re gonna drop Martin off so he can get back to Toronto with Katherine. He has to go back, he can’t stay here. Please, Sammy! You hear what I’m sayin’?”
“Since when do I owe you?”
“Sam, Sam, Sam. You’ve always owed me. That’s what friends are for. Who showed you how to trap minnows? Who taught you to make popcorn, eh? Have a little gratitude.”
“I’ll gratitude ya one in the side of the head you show up here with that silly faggot. Not now, man! I got hot things on the stove here. Y’ know?”
“How about later? Couple hours? We give you a couple hours, we go have a beer, you get your cookin’ done, eat ‘er up, and we’ll come by for coffee. I got a bottle of Jack. I know she likes it. You want a bottle of Jack? Say yes, Sammy, please say yes.”
“Where the fuck am I gonna put him? I don’t want him near me. Anyway, what’s wrong you don’t want him? He spring a leak, or somethin’?”
“He’s in love with me, Sam. He wants my babies.”
“Just like that, eh? Jesus, you guys are queer. What’d you do to him? You can’t be that good, yer dick’s too small.”
“Fuck off, Geronimo, you’re only big ‘cause there’s no blood in your brain. Thing is, I fucked me a chick, Sam. Just like you said, y’ bust ‘em, y’ buy ‘em. I can already smell the diaper pail. Well, the fag version, anyway, cat box. I’m serious, this one hears wedding bells when he comes. I don’t need this. I can’t take this right now, he has to go. He’s drinking tea with my mother, Sam. She likes him. Please!”
“Midnight. You can show up midnight. Not one fuckin’ minute before twelve. Got me? And bring the bottle, don’t forget the bottle, or I’ll make y’ kiss the bride.”

There wasn’t much of a welcome at Sam’s table. A kerosene lamp with a dirty chimney leaked a trap of amber light and the air, ripe in the heat of the stove, felt ready to split. Martin wasn’t speaking to Katherine and tidied an ashtray instead. She wants to fuck Hiawatha, fine, but she can suck wind if she thinks she’s getting rid of me, I’ve got sex of my own. And he tried to stroke Paul’s dodging leg with a foot.
Sam snorted and rolled back into boredom, a leg over a chair arm, one fist on the table. Cop a feel of this, y’ little fag. Dump this on me, Magarry, and you owe me for life. You start talkin’ feelings, I’m outta here.
Katherine caught Sam’s glare and rolled her eyes. I don’t need this! I’ve got plans. I’m keeping this carpenter. I’ve got things to do here. I don’t need this, Martin.
Brad saw it all from the edge of his eyes and began to curl against a coming explosion.
Poising an index finger at the tip of his nose while he contemplated Sam’s sprawl at the head of the table, Paul sought an opening through which he might drag the conversation backwards without getting clawed. Fucking fifth wheel, just Brad and I might’ve gotten it off here. Oh sure. Hey, y’ never know, the two of us could’ve dropped in, shivareed the love birds, got drunk and horny. Smell of raunch in this place, I could’ve been into his pants. Yah, well, should’ve dumped Martin in a ditch, then, eh? Nobody’s having any fun here, you’d better think of something. He pointed the finger, “You know, Sammy, you look entirely too comfortable for my peace of mind. It feels like…”
“Piss off, Magarry!” Sam swung to the floor, was up and out the door, into his truck and gone before his numbing venom released four throats.
“Jeezuz!”
“Christ.”
“On a cracker.”
“What’s his problem?”
Nobody said it, but three pairs of eyes accused Martin of idiocy.
“What? So? Who’s he think he is? Obviously a homophobe. Eh, Paul?”
“I don’t think that’s his problem, Marty.”
“You little shit-head!” Katherine’s swinging arm missed his head and flipped an empty beer bottle to the floor, “You just lost me a house!”
“What? This… Shed?” Martin scrambled for the bottle, peeved it hadn’t shattered, “A bit of a step in the down direction, isn’t it?”
“Not this, you asshole, mine ! I want him to build me a house and now you’ve fucked it up.”
“Oh, now we’re going to live here, are we? Goodbye city life, Green Acres here she comes, eh? Buying yourself a little local… What? Colour, isn’t quite right. Is it, Kate?”
“I don’t need this shit, Martin. This is for me. I want something for me, here, and I don’t need to hear you getting jealous about it.”
“Jealous!” Martin flushed and choked air, “Oh, fuck.” He gathered a lungful, “You, you, you, it’s always about you, isn’t it? It’s about you and Art, about you and David, and now it’s you and Chingasc…..”
“I don’t think so,” Her voice cracked ice, “I think it’s about you, Marty. He doesn’t like you.”
When Sam had put down the phone and told her what was up, she’d actually been happy to hear that Martin had finally fallen out of the closet, not surprised it was Paul. Why not? He’s queer. But now she was furious and a swallow of bourbon didn’t warm her at all. So what if I brought him? I’ve got other things to do. “Why can’t you just stay…” Wagging a hand at Paul, “…stay in town, or someplace, and just… Do it?” She glared at Brad, “What’d you bring them here for? Why’s it have to be my problem? Sam’s so pissed-off, I’ll never see him again.” Hunched, elbows on knees, lips a tight line, she breathed fury at the tabletop, then throwing herself upright and blowing her breath, “Fucking faggots!” She snatched the bourbon and refilled her glass.
“Ohh, yah.” Paul figured he could see why David had left her. Her problem? Martin is her problem. She brings him up here and now she wants to dump him for Sam, so he’s my problem, and it’s Brad’s fault he’s here. Jesus! Eat cake, woman.
Brad stared hard at the hands in his lap. His eyes stung and he didn’t want them to water. They’re good hands. Why’s it such a big deal? She really hurts. Why’s it matter? He cleaned his nails with his picking finger waiting for the hurt to pass.
“Oh, don’t you worry your pretty little head, he’ll be back,” Martin was too unforgiving to care about danger, “Now he’s had a taste of white bitch, he won’t be able to resist. Worse than firewater to ‘em, can’t get enough.” His eyes were wide in a withering glare when she threw her drink at him.
For his part, Sam was air-guitaring the steering wheel to Cockburn’s Tokyo cranked on the deck as he slid gravel corners up to the Arlen. “Oh Tokyoho… oh I never can sleep… da da… Did y’ have to show me that accident scene? …ba da da… Fuckin’ Magarry, he knows I hate that fag crap, that dink Martin rubbin’ on him like dizzy gash. And fuckin’ Fell tryin’ to look cool, little prick’s never been south of Peterborough.” Sam needed to whack some balls with a stick.
Martin’s scream of pain having frozen Katherine in shock, Paul shook his head with resigned disgust, dug a ratty blue bandana from his pocket to poke between the palms pressed over Martin’s eyes, and gave Brad permission to leave with a lift of his chin and a roll of eyes to the door. When Brad didn’t stir his stunned gaze from Martin’s dripping face, Paul repeated his gestures and added, “You go. I’ll deal with it.” Brad’s eyes went back to his hands.
What disgusted Paul was his own resigned willingness to stay and put up with whatever came next. I don’t care if they kill each other, I don’t even know these people! He’s not my boyfriend, they’re not my friends, I’ve met them twice, I don’t even like them, for chrissake! So, why do you have to deal with it? ‘Cause I’m not taking him back. So, go. I can’t. You want to watch the fight. I don’t. You do. Somebody’s gotta keep them from killing each other. “Listen, people…”
“Martin, Jesus, I’m sorry,” Her eyes were squeezed tight with the pain of her own behaviour. You just threw your drink in his face! He won’t shut up. “But you fucking asked for it,” So, he fucking deserved it. “You’ve got a mean mouth, Marty.” He called you a white bitch, and you just proved it. I want Sam. I want his nose. I want his hammer. Bonus for the body. She opened her eyes and growled in Brad’s direction, “Where’s he gone?”
“The Arlen, most likely. He’ll make last call.” He picked at a nail and didn’t look up.
“You’re driving me,” She snatched her keys from the table, “There a bus go out of here somewhere tomorrow?”
“Edge of town,” He looked at her from the top of his eyes, “Which way?”
“South,” She stared hard at Martin. “Toronto, one way.”
“Down from Pembroke, hits Bannock about noon, I think. Don’t know when it makes Toronto, never done it. Could be express, could be a milk run.”
“Okay,” She propped her bag at her hip and started collecting herself, cigarettes, lighter, empty cigar box, “You’re taking me to find Sam,” dangled her keys, “I’m going to get my car, follow him back if I have to, and first thing tomorrow, Martin, I’m taking you to the bus. Okay?” She switched her stare to Paul, “You come with us. Straighten it out with Sam.” She tipped her head at Brad, “He can drive you back into town after.”
Paul stared back. Oh, fine, long as we know who’s running this show. Designated driver, designated fixer, no hidden agenda, that’s for sure. “We just going to leave Martin here?” Say yes. Poor bastard. Paul found a sympathetic smile and gave it to Martin, “You be all right?” You treacherous slime, Magarry, you were going to stay for the fight. Remember? Looks like it’s over.
“There’re plenty of blankets, he can sleep over there,” Pointing through the shadows, “There’s a daybed thing,” Her eye lit again on Martin and a tick of guilt pulled a corner of her mouth. She lowered her face and aimed it straight at him, “If it’s really so important to you, we’ll pick him up again in the morning and you can kiss him goodbye all the way to the bus. Okay?” She stood from the table and shouldered her bag, “When we get back, you keep your mouth shut and your head down. Bury it. I don’t want Sam to even know you’re here. Not a word.”
WEDNESDAY

David Bailey woke from a night’s deep dreaming in a sweat of loose fear. Poking for meaning, he gathered the ends of thought in one hand and counted heartbeats before opening his eyes. No one came with coffee and cigarettes. Get up, or die, David. Oh good, life without drugs and me with a full bladder. Get up or swim. Not a day for getting up naked, good thing I slept in my clothes.
Sitting on the toilet, he tried to think of ways to avoid moving any further. I could have a dose of cancer. Just read for the day. Drink coffee and wear smelly clothes. Stick Vicks up my nose and drink hot lemon. Dry toast. A little jam. Poached egg maybe. It’s not a cold. No. It must be worse. Wash. If I don’t, I must really be sick. I’ll brush my teeth.
Rinsing his mouth from the tap, he splashed his face, rubbed his hair and found himself running a comb through it. Well, I suppose a little pot of coffee won’t do any harm, cheer me up. Might not be many more coffees, if this is really it. His left arm twisted back to let his fingers explore the tip of the blade as he leaned through the doorway to the kitchenette to punch grind and perc on the loaded machine. It doesn’t feel right. Is that a lump? His arm ached. Oh god, it’s spreading! Struck down in his prime. Is this my prime? Gone from guilt, they’ll say. But they’ll be wrong. I don’t suppose exasperation’s a great reason for leaving the wife, though a guy in a bar’d understand, a real bar with tables. But what would the guys in a group have to say about her shrinking my sweaters? Oh sure, chauvinist shit, man. What d’ you expect? But she wears them till they get tits and when I say so, she dumps ‘em in hot water. Hey man, y’ lock her in the traditional role, man, and then put her down for doin’ her thing, man. We as a group think…
Focusing hard on the bridge of his nose in the mirror, David knew he could drink enough beer with the guy in the bar to remember the times that girls made them hurt; the nicks and cuts and rope burns they got playing with them, the gangrene and blown pistons they got fighting for them, the empty holes they got when they were gone. Rueful, would be the word, grin and wince memories of all the times they took their hands out of their pockets and got their knuckles rapped anyway. His arm, still pressed to his back, was asleep to the elbow.
David had left Katherine, swanned off to a budgie-box of a bed-sitter halfway up a redbrick stack, because she told him to, more or less. For the first years of their relationship__ was it two years, three? he no longer remembered, perhaps it had been only months__ they had been so wrapped in lust and exhaustion, in the ignorant bliss of mutual discovery, that the little irritations of personal habit had mostly passed as amusing lapses into self-indulgence and they had pegged along negotiating truces to minor disagreements. But one problem had rankled from the first. Out of bed in the morning, she would crank on the chattering voices of talk radio and David’s heart would leap in shock. He had tried to explain to her his need when first waking to hear himself think, to hear his own voices and reacquaint himself with what he’d understood before falling into sleep and, perhaps with luck or concentration, to tease out some new thought that had surfaced in the night. He hadn’t been sure that she understood, or believed him, seeming to think his refusal to listen to be a criticism of her intelligent concern, but she had agreed to control the volume and he’d learned to hide in the bathroom with coffee and cigarettes until he could face conversation. The compromise had worked for a while, but it couldn’t survive her increasing demands for his attention as she came to believe that the career she had chosen for herself with its promises of excitement had trapped her. There was no stardom, only an agreeable income, and she had gradually soured with boredom. She wanted an audience and he apparently worked too much, didn’t know how to smell the roses, she said, how to kick back and let it go. Which wasn’t true, he knew how to sit, he just wasn’t always ready for cocktails and discussions of life. She’d expected his attention, and if she wasn’t going to get it__ Scram! And when he finally said okay, she knew that it had to be another woman. It wasn’t. It was the radio.
His fingers felt numb, cold, dead in their twisted grip of his shoulder blade. He tried for a soulful look in the mirror and thought his cheekbones more prominent than they’d been yesterday. It’s the Big One. I’m too young. Give you six months. Three days if you work it into a sweat. When did you eat last? Besides the peanut butter and toast. Skin’s too dry. I should eat salad. What day is it, anyway? Wednesday. The date, what’s the date? The beginning of the end of my life is… Massaging blood back down his arm, he stepped into the kitchenette and examined the calendar thumbtacked to the wall. There, Wednesday, the eleventh. Wouldn’t you know, the eleventh hour of what’s left of my pathetic life. Next Sunday’s circled. Why’s it circled? The twelfth hour! The day of my death. Yah, sure. Why is it circled? Amusement shrank to despair. Fuck, what have I forgotten now? Nothing, I can’t remember anything. Why is it circled? I don’t know! Relax, forget it, let it go, you’re alive, do your exercises.
Facing the counter, David planted his feet and bent his knees; swivelling from the hips he rinsed a mug in the sink, filled it from the still brewing pot, added milk from the refrigerator and sugar from the cupboard above the stove. He downed the coffee in a few long swallows and repeated the exercise. He jogged four steps to the foot of the unfolded couch and dug a pack of cigarettes out of the bedsheets, but couldn’t find his lighter.
A pewter tankard on top of the television held dead ballpoints, plastic swizzle sticks and at the bottom a crumpled book of emergency matches. The tankard’s base was glass and as his fingers tweezed for the matchbook, he thought he’d be happy to shut his eyes, take the king’s shilling, shoulder a musket and go off to conquer the world. Surely blind chance had seemed more hopeful when there was still some new world left? Now geography’s dead, the only frontier’s in your mind. In the potholes of your mind. I need out of here, I’m starting to sing-song. Get clean. I suppose you can’t smoke on the space shuttle.
Ambling back into the bathroom, he lit his smoke, braced his rump against the basin cabinet and peeled away his socks, watching the thick-ribbed wool heavy with three days’ wear plop to lie like puppies on the floor. I should have a dog. Not here, you shouldn’t. No. I should have a dog somewhere it’s good to have a dog. I should go somewhere. And get a dog? Well. No, just go… bugger off to Banbury Cross, to Banbury Cross, riding on a pony… no, that’s Yankee Doodle, Macaroni the pony… you ride the cockhorse to Banbury… Who cares? Just move it.
Shucking the grey sweatpants from his hips, he noticed he’d never once thought of having a dog all the time he’d been with Katherine. Maybe a dog would’ve made the difference. Oh yah! A golden lab in diapers. Happy families! Stop singing. She wouldn’t put up with a dog any more than a kid. She’s no idea how self-absorbed she is. Unhooking a finger from the sweatpants crunched at his thighs, he slid it down the length of his penis. Ride a cockhorse to… Enough! He slapped his own hand. Get out of town. Go to the country. I hate the country.
The summer David was twelve and broke his uncle Jim’s wagon tongue, he had increased his own chest expansion by two inches bellowing obscenities drowned in the racketing clang and clatter of the haybaler and the loading elevator, both machines pitching sweaty green bombs at his head. Jim sat on the tractor while David scrambled to build load after bucking load a perfect seven bales high. Jim lounged in the breeze dropping bale on bale at the elevator’s lip while David dodged and dragged, screaming in the frightening heat of the mow swelling to the roof. Jim told him he was lazy, didn’t have the guts to finish a job. Jim was standing in the stable resting a hand on the manure bucket where it hung by chains from the overhead track, the other hand in his overalls scratching at his crotch when he said it. David’s rubber boots were ankle deep in the gutterful of bull piss, his hands dripped on the five-tined fork when he drove it into the treacly mattress of straw and dung. He wrenched and tore and levered up a steaming slab of shit bigger than himself and raised it arcing from his shoulders in a caber toss that landed in the bucket and missed his uncle’s face.
Parking his cigarette against the cold tap, David bent, pushed and stepped out of his sweatpants, tugged his teeshirt over his head to join the heap and straightened, turned and stared into the mirror, navel to nipples to eyes. Two eyes, two ears, two arms – he stepped back from the basin – two balls, two legs, two feet down there, one cock, one bellybutton, one chest hair, one mouth, one nose. Bifocal senses, two to hear and see and grab it, one to smell and taste and fuck it. Oh yah, one asshole. To report it. And look what they’ve done to the brain, Ma. I used to be of one mind and now the right side thinks it knows what the left side’s doing. He felt a thickening of the air on his shoulders, but he shrugged it back and shook his head, finished his smoke, flipped it into the toilet and started the water into the tub. Perhaps a rush of blood, perhaps the colours of the shampoo bottle did it, for suddenly David remembered green wooden chairs and red bloody marys and why his calendar was circled.
It must have been a Sunday, his mother-in-law, Bea, committed her charitable mercies and drew her accounts after church, sharing the blame, “We hold ours late in the year, for ourselves, really, though we do take outsiders, but not like the Baptists, just after the tourists, you know. Once the cooler weather sets in people appreciate a big meal more. We don’t do the tables all in rows the way we used to. It’s more work for us, but then you young people seem to want to keep to yourselves these days, don’t you?” David had reached for his wallet and bowed submissively while she tore off two tickets. “I’ll keep these here in a safe place, shall I? Not that it matters, I can certainly say that you paid for them, but this way we’ll be sure.” Bea had raised her voice to a whisper as she left her lawn, “You never know, David, we can never tell just how many more of these things we’ll be around for, you’ll feel better for being there. We all will. Katherine, you’ll burn in those shorts. Don’t you have anything else?” David had fallen into a green chair and gulped a red drink and rolled his blue eyes at Katherine who’d said with her face in a book, “You see what I’ve been up against all my life?” She didn’t move the book. “I certainly see where you get it from,” he’d said.
The Fowl Supper. Of course! He slapped his head, yanked off the tub faucet, yanked it back on and sat down on the rim to sort his memory. I can’t go there, see all those people. Here’s the church – he knitted his fingers – here’s the steeple – up went two fingers – open the doors – thumbs splayed, hands twisted – and here’re all those fucking people! Yak yakkety yak that’s him there, yak yak left her you know, yakkety yak never amounted to a hill of beans, poor girl yak yak, looks like a drinker. I hear… Unhh! He winced as a knuckle cracked. Arthritis for sure, my hands are really shot. Useless. Pecker’ll probably go next. Yak yak, we hear he can’t get it up anymore, turned green as a pickle and…
Did Katherine forget? Nobody said a word about it Friday, now I think of it, and Bea doesn’t forget things like that. Gotta be a reason. They cancel it? Not fucking likely, it’s sacred. They don’t want me. Could be. Suppose she forgot to remind Katherine, too? She won’t want Strawbridge to know we’re busted up. Faux pas, Bea! Those Lettie sisters’d never let her hear the end of it. I could turn up on my own and stand ‘em right on their ears. Hah, better yet, I should call up Magarry and take him along, put their collective nose out of joint. Well, forget it, you can’t go even if you wanted to, you’re out of the family, out of the loop. And I don’t care. Though Tillie’s always fun. And the food’s great. It’s over, Davey, you’re out, you’ll have to find new things to do. Yah, sure. I just want to sit in the tub anyway. Maybe drown. Wash yourself.
Looking for courage in the mirror, David saw instead the smears and toothpaste splatters on the glass, a net of fine broken vessels under his left breast, hair behind the taps, rubble. He soldiered on only to stall, one foot in the tub, trying to breathe, his heart shrinking. He put a hand to it and felt nothing. Oh yes, there it was, always lower than expected. He made sure of a dry towel on the rack and lowered himself, arched his knees, and lying back dipped his chest beneath the water, gently rocking his shoulders pressed into the curve, encouraging the lapping heat onto his lungs and heart. He considered playing submarine with the shampoo bottle, and the melancholy settled on him.
You don’t have to do these things anymore, David. Remember? Why would you go to all the trouble of leaving and then turn around and slink back when… Not slink! So, what? Skip? Swagger? Slide maybe. Take a base. Abase, like you said, on your belly. Okay, slink. So I won’t do it, I’ll stay here. Floating back till the water lapped into his ears, he listened to the pressure changes.
He had been in a field, backing Jim’s tractor onto that last load of hay just as the wind came up fat with rain from the southwest. He could picture Jim moving fast on the stubble, shutting down the baler, raising the tines for a home run up the road, being again first off the land with his mows full. Jim, who never could get the wife in the family way. He snapped Jim’s wagon tongue in one long nasty splinter, the load sat, the rain came, the bales sucked water and smoked. Jim burned the air purple and whipped tears, but what David couldn’t remember was whether he’d known to turn sharp, or whether it was a happy coincidence.
He hunkered up to kneel in the tub, dunked his head and began to shampoo. How? How’re you gonna get up to Strawbridge? Call her and find out if she’s going. No. You don’t even know it’s happening. Call Bea. Yah, sure, Bea’d probably just as soon do without me. Call Tillie, if you’re being dumped, at least she’ll do it gently. I guess. Call her. I will. Now get your ass out of here and get to work.
“Katya? It’s Maude. I got George on the phone this morning, said I’m driving up tomorrow. Am I? Are we? Did Bena get Ziski? Have you talked to her? Are we going?” Excited, Maude worried. Was she anxious, or eager? Anxious’s blood pressure, eager’s just fun. Take your pills and think about it later, “I didn’t say us, though, I thought it best not to spook him. Said I needed some up-country air to blow the stink off me and I’d bring lunch. He didn’t say a word about Elizabeth, so she hasn’t gotten to him yet. We have to move on this, Katya, we’ve already wasted a day. He says he’ll meet me at the marina at noon. Has Bena arranged us a ride, or not? I’ll ante-up for a car, if we have to. Either we get the jump on my sister, or I might as well go back to bed for the rest of my life.”
“Ziski just dropped Bena off here. He doesn’t have a phone, or they’ve cut him off, or something, so she had to trek away up there again. He drove her back. And yes, he’s on for tomorrow, any time’s good for him. Bena’s game, god knows, meddlesome harpy that she is. Ziski says his car is of the most comfortable and we will have a most wonderful ride. We will look at the lovely countryside and sing its songs, he says.”
“Strip malls and whining, last time I was up that way. You sure we’ll all fit in that little car of his? An awful lot of personality in one vehicle, I think. Somehow I feel like we should be driving one of those bomb shaped Studebaker’s they had when we were girls. Do we have a timetable for this odyssey?”
“Well, if we leave by ten, we can be there by noon, I’d think. Can’t we? You should know. Hold on… Bena! Ten tomorrow morning? She says yes, she’ll come here. Ziski’s to phone her tonight… Phone her?” Maude rattled her head, “Maybe he just doesn’t answer. He should get one of those call displays, they’re good if you’re paranoid. Anyway, he’s going to phone Bena to find out when. He knows where this is, if you come by here, Maude, he could pick us all up at once. Four of us… You sure the boat‘ll be big enough?”
“Oh, George’ll bring the cruiser out for me, that’s tradition. It’s tidy for space, but you don’t sit at that speed, and it’ll certainly hold us, if it held forty cases of rye. Speaking of which, we should take a cocktail and I did say I’d bring lunch. Can you manage? Nothing fancy, sandwiches, egg, tuna, George doesn’t care what he eats.”
“Well, that takes the pressure off the Beef Welly and the Baked Alaska, anyway. Would he actually mind if it’s edible?”
“Sorry. I apologize. Whatever you do will be delicious, I know that, and I’ll be far more grateful than I ever seem able to express. Not in the habit, I suppose. Well, I’ll slip out this afternoon and get us a couple of nice bottles of wine to go along with… ? …red? white? I’ll get some of each then, will I? Sure.”

Katherine made Martin stay in the passenger seat of the car, separated from Paul in the back, until the bus looked ready to leave. Despite her promise, she wasn’t allowing anything disgusting to go on in the mall parking lot, not if she was going to live around here, and she turned a hard look on Martin every time his hand snuck between the seats to grope for any part of Paul. When finally it was time, she hustled an awkward embrace, thrust Martin’s bag into his hands and steered him with shoulder pats onto the bottom step. She stood with Paul, who thanked her for running interference, and waved till the bus reached the edge of the lot. Preoccupied and mostly silent, she followed his directions into the centre of town to his mother’s house.
The day before, alone in the bath, slipping soapy hands over herself, her gaze out the window beside the tub fixed on the wild bush that rolled like green surf lapping high up breast-shaped hills and deep down narrow valleys, she had felt a flowing of softness she’d seldom known before. She’d decided, when the tub had cooled and she’d thought to worry about pruning skin, that she was going for it all.
With inattentive courtesy she remembered to ask Paul for a phone number, to keep in touch, “Oh, and by the way,” She centred a look of benevolent gratitude in the frame of her open window, “Thank you for finding Sam for me.” Changing gears, neglecting to wave, she headed downtown for a circuit of realtors, and without patience for detail, avuncular concern, or nosy advice, she soon collected a fat file of property lists, did a quick shop and headed back out to Sam’s.

Between one client, a too pretty twenty year old redhead who was never not going to follow the stupid path, and another__ Who is next? David switched files and flipped the cover on his next social beneficiary__ Oh fuck! It was the old guy who always managed to make him feel like a bit of a shit, who smiled and called the new social welfare the Open Workhouse, who looked like he actually had a life and certainly knew how to sound grateful. David felt lonesomeness wash down through him. He blew out his lips and thought he really wanted somebody to like him. Did Tillie, still? Did Bea, ever? Or did they just for Katherine’s sake? His friend Jane wanted him for career partnership, a social licensing that he suspected didn’t anticipate budgeting for a lot of liking time. My mother’s dead. Father. Nobody has to like me anymore. Paul likes me. Yah? Yah. I think so. The sex thing’s just a routine he knows’ll make me laugh. Besides, so what, even if he does mean it, I can’t take a compliment? You are desperate. Fuck off! Point is, I always liked him and he always liked me, right when we met. Poor bugger’s probably feeling like Friday night was his fault. Like everybody else, I bet, except for Dragonlady. Poor Bea’ll be dying of mortification, if she hasn’t already killed herself. I really should phone her. You want to phone her? Jesus, no! I’m starting to lose it. Phone Paul.
Reception having already called to say the old guy was in the waitingroom, early as always, David noted the time, figuring ten minutes wouldn’t kill that kind of patience, flipped a directory and punched up the AGO. It took cunning to get as far as the duty office, but the frost in the voice saying Paul Magarry was no longer on staff, meant he wasn’t going to get more without a fight. When a supervisor sneered, “I’m sorry, sir, the AGO does not divulge personal numbers. If you’re looking for Mister Magarry, perhaps you should go back to that funny bar again, Sir,” David felt justified flashing his license to invade. He preferred not to know every detail of his clients’ lives and anyway was mostly confined these days to chasing them from pillar to post, making demands they couldn’t refuse, but hey, when you’ve got the authority, anyone could be your client, and sometimes it’s a crisis, “… and you will give me his home number, please, and any others you might have. Any addresses, as well, for our own purposes, any contacts and their personal information, everything you have. Thank you, I’ll hold.” When he got what he needed, he got an answering machine and the best he could do was leave name and numbers and wait for the end of the day. He sent for the old guy, opened his file, and looked for a new hoop.
Tidying the kitchen after Maude’s phone call, George found himself waltzing his feather tic around the room and realized he was pumping with energy. He liked this camping out like a schoolboy. He liked his sister-in-law and he liked the idea of a picnic. He knew he was being manic, but he liked that too. Why not? In fact, I love it! I’ve been lower than a snake’s belly, and now I’m not. Let’s have a party. Okay. Call Beatrice. Why not? And why not the Rosses? Why not? I dare you. Double-dog dare. You’re on, Georgie! Forgetting the weight of the old bakelight phone, he almost clubbed himself silly when he grabbed up the receiver.
“Beatrice, hello!” He felt himself grinning like a fool, heard himself repeating how-are-yous, and tried to calm down and make sense, “You know my sister-in-law, Maude. Of course you do, though maybe you’d rather you didn’t. Anyway, she’s driving up for lunch tomorrow. Can you imagine that? All this way for lunch? And she’s going to bring it, which isn’t her at all. Sounds very festive. So, I was thinking…” Whoa! His thought jumped sideways. Maude doesn’t have a car, she… Oh Christ no, not Elizabeth! It can’t be, Maude wouldn’t. She wouldn’t! Unless Elizabeth’s gone off the deep end about what happened. She went off the deep end Friday night. Ahh, shit. Goddammit! “So, …uum… I was thinking…” Changing tack, he didn’t even try to keep the disappointment from his voice, “I guess it means I’m not going to get the chance to run down river tomorrow after all. I’m sorry this’s come up, but hey, my sister-in-law. Family, eh? I’m a little worried about what she’s coming all this way for. Hope it’s not some kind of bad news, sickness, you know, or something like that. Can I call you later, when I know, after she’s gone? You’ll be in? Do you mind? You’re sure? Okay. Until then. Goodbye, Beatrice.”
George put down the receiver and found the scotch. I can’t imagine Elizabeth telling Maude what I did. Yes you can. I have to stop living in fantasy land. She’s throwing a divorce lawyer at me. Maude wouldn’t help do that, she’s always been on my side. You’ve never slapped her sister’s ass before. I need to think. I have to stop answering the phone. Leave it off the hook and go split some kindling. When he came in to load the box beside the stove and a peevish voice was telling him to please hang-up, he wrapped the phone in his bed pillow, flipped its cord over the countertop, and crammed the whole thing into the empty flour bin.
By noon, Elizabeth had discovered that there was no funding, no money to be had from any responsible agency of government, unless her orchestra was fully professional, existed in a major regional capital, and had proven itself with a minimum of twenty-five years of internationally recognized success and a healthy endowment. It would help, too, if the national broadcaster was making a tidy profit from a few recordings. Otherwise, she might plead in triplicate to one or two bureaucracies responsible for laundering gambling money, whose real job was to nickel and dime to death the myriad stop-gap responses to a hung and gutted cultural policy, agencies who might, if pressed beneath the weight of a superfluity of information, just might authorize an expenditure, duly supervised, for… oh, perhaps a nice brochure, or a bulk purchase of twelve gross of music stand lamp bulbs from a Schedule B designated supplier, provided that… etc.
Beginning her search, Elizabeth had been insulted to think that so many people had already heard of her recent depredations in the visual arts, that these fair-weather contacts were stonewalling, reviewing her membership, whispering in the halls. It took Old Monteith himself, who’d been Lieutenant-Governor so long ago already he only remembered the hat through the whisky haze, to convince her that there really wasn’t any money on offer from the public purse, “Nothin’ to do with your little sketch, Betty. The bully boys’ve got hold of the wheel for a while and there’s not gonna be any more of that sissy stuff while they’re drivin’. Wasn’t your doin’, m’ dear.” Without considering where her own vote had gone, Elizabeth shuddered from the barbarism and raised her standard, “George!”
When he failed to answer the phone at the lake, she was at first relieved, having remembered mid-ring that they hadn’t spoken since he… well, since he… relieved that her sudden hot confusion could go unnoticed by any…
“Madam, lunch.”
“Not now, Quaid!”
…body who mattered. She chose to believe he’d returned, of course he had, chastened, to the city, and was even now at his desk. She phoned. Darla was able to convince her otherwise only by admitting that Mister Preston had called Tuesday morning from the lake.
“Oh!” More hot confusion, “Ordering the car?” Of course he’s on his way, how foolish, he needs… I hadn’t thought…
“Yes, he…” Oh shit! Ambushed! The bitch winged me. I’m getting past it.
“For today, then.” He has to be back today since he wasn’t back yester… Oh, dear.
“No, Ma’am.” Losing ground with every word, Darla, old scout, your front-line days are over, best just pack your old kit bag and take early retirement.
“When, then?” You tight-lipped, tight-assed, stenographing lesbian, “For what day did Mister Preston request the car?”
“Saturday!” Saved! Rescued by a tactical error. “Mister Preston requested the car for Saturday.” Ha! Skinny bitch, you asked the wrong question.
“Saturday! I want him before Saturday! I need him before Saturday!”
“Perhaps you should phone up to the…”
“I have telephoned to the lake, thank you, Mizz Samson!”
Darla gathered some things, left the office early and got drunk at the Legion, talking to some girlfriends about setting up a Bed and Breakfast cum Paintball resort up in the Kawarthas.
Elizabeth set her service on constant redial to the lake, and instructed Missus Quaid to tell Mister Preston, when he answered, that it was absolutely imperative that she speak to him.
“Okay.”
“Tell him that I wish to speak to him this evening.”
“Okay.”
“I’ll be out to appointments all day.” And she went to Holt’s to have a look at skirts in a presidential line.
When Katherine got back from town to find Sam still rolled up in bed, she poured him a coffee and tossed him his truck keys, “So, show me the sights. Not that, put some pants on it for a minute. I want to go see where I am.” She pulled the cork on some wine, and told Sam there was a box of beer in her backseat, which he slid under a tarp in the bed of the truck. He noticed the stack of realtors’ papers and photocopies slithering on the seat between them, recognized the meaning, and said nothing, overcome with relief that his roof would still be his own. He punched Neil Young into the old deck balanced on the dash and drove them around country she hadn’t known existed, where the gravel roads, never straight, felt like secrets, where every hill hid another. He slithered and gunned the car over loose rocks and grassed ruts, through deep treed tunnels, across bogs that licked over roads without hydro or telephone lines, without map lines; roads once cut to the empty farms, the abandoned mines, the rotting bush camps, and then forgotten.
“Lot of it’s been let go if there’s nobody local on it. Unless you need some gravel into the huntin’ camp and the wife’s brother’s on the township truck,” Sam said when they hit a smooth packed stretch, “Six steel culverts under this here, just so the Green boys can come shoot themselves some venison when they like. Any money wants to hide up here, pretty much has to build it’s own roads. There’s some, not much, mostly ‘round the lakes. It’s camp country, really, still pretty cheap, too many flies and too many miles from Dudesville. Money’s still over west. I’ll show you something different, though.”
He goosed the truck up a long rough lane till they landed in a weed-grown yard between a sprawling wreck of a house and a tidy little horsebarn. Barking hello, a fat basset barreled from under a pair of enormous alsatians to throw himself at Sam’s ankles. A heavy face haloed in white curls loomed high in the open top of a dutch-door in the side of the barn. A deep voice silenced the hound with a word and said, “I’m busy.” Sam reached under the tarp in the truckbed, pulled out and wagged both his hands holding clusters of beers, said, “Sure, Bay,” walked to the door, stretched and pecked the side of her head, “What’re you busy at?” She made a disgusted face, though her eyes shone, and raised a manure fork in a big fist, “Drinking tea with the Queen. What’s it look like?”
Bay Barell had been sitting at her kitchen table, laying a black jack on a red queen, when she stared out to judge the sun through glass as safely grimed as smoked lens and thought she’d better get the stable mucked out before the day was done. Black ten. Swallowing a last cold draught of sweet black coffee, she’d set the mug to anchor the rest of the deck, crushed her cigarette into an overflowing ashtray atop a covered butter dish and stretched to poke a thick finger amongst the nearest confusion of old mail and gloves and tobacco tins, finding a packet of cat treats she held in her fist, till she rooted up a hard toffee to slip into her mouth. A forgotten stem of grapes had surfaced in the search, she examined it with interest, thought they’d soon be good enough raisins for a batch of scones and tossed them back on the heap to finish drying. Lurching to her feet with a shove on the chair and a push on the round rim of the table she held to with her thumbs, her legs trembled with tension until her weight came to bear and subsided into a rocking balance. She eyed the patience deck, only one housed, and left it lie. The columned cards, black, red, black, red, looked like an incantation to order in the rubble of the room.
She’d shuffled across corduroyed floorboards on a foot-wide path, gritty and littered with dirty straw and staked to either edge with a grimy larder of soup cans and bean cans, cans of beer and cans of nails, cans of oil, virgin olive, neatsfoot and WD30, cans without labels, rusty cans and swollen cans, bottles of whisky and bottles of rum, jars of jam, bottles of port and bottles of ale, a half-dozen jars of mayonnaise, sticky bottles of marmalade, mint sauce, fish sauce and sweet liqueurs. She’d tugged a grubby blue flannel shirt from a heap on the back of a chair that hadn’t seen light for…? Well, somebody must have sat there once, surely. You couldn’t get at the other two, she thought there should be two, maybe there were three, buried under jackets and junk mail and harness and sweaters and muzzles and papers and leashes and socks, behind stacks of books and sacks of dogfood, sacks of catfood, heaps of sacks and piles of boxes and boxes of cider in cans. She’d reached four blackening carrots from a bag at her feet, poked them into a pocket of her khaki shorts, flailed into the flannel, hauled up a sock on a sandaled foot and shuffled to the door.
Jerking out the old work glove that wedged the door to the jamb, she’d passed through to the summer kitchen, catching the door again with a practiced flip of the glove and a tug on the rusted-out knob. The pair of shepherds, the dog huge and handsome, his bitch of a sister worried and wolfish, attended underfoot by the bologna roll of grizzled old basset, had wagged, muttered, arfed and bowed. Her hand half down a paper sack of milkbones, she’d changed her mind and rummaged instead into the warming shelf of a dead cook stove, pulling from behind a ratty black squirrel mounted on a stick, a butcher’s package of over-ripe pig feet and handed them round. The dogs had carried off the high, rank smell of rotting hocks and she’d tossed the styrofoam tray onto a fly-blown stack atop the kennel boxes and headed out the dog-yard gate. The basset, a border collie on his mother’s side, managed to double his stake when the big shepherd looked up to watch the woman cross to the horsebarn.
Standing straight, Bay could be six-three, so the horse-sized doors of the loafing barn appeared in scale as she drew the bolt and turned the patent handle latch. A tall buckskin colt backstepped, lips whickering, head tossing his pleasure back to his mother out in the yard. The mare raised her head from a study of yesterday’s hay and nodded hello. A small, tidy cat wove her affection back and forth between nervous forelegs, keeping an eye on Bay, who ran a hand down the gelding’s nose and an eye over his grey-gold sealskin hide. Leading with the carrots, she’d shut the horses out of the barn, spoken to the cat about the mice in the oat box and was hunting her fork in the stable when the roar of an engine and the hound announced company.
Watching the woman climb from the truck, her careful leverage on door and frame, the slide not a jump from the seat, Bay waited to see what Sam had brought this time. She moves a bit tender, a long time to find gravel, maybe she’s tight. Good boots. Good grief! She’s no spring chicken, that’s for sure. What kind of trouble have you found yourself this time, Salmon?
Introducing Katherine to Bay, Sam gave his excuse, “She’s lookin’ for a place. Wants to live up here. Thought you might talk sense to her.”
“How d’ y’ do.” Would you look at that walk. She’s been ridden bow-legged. Bay had a moment’s pining for the old days before she’d wrecked her back. I’d ‘ve had her on a horse and into a ditch and Sam in the sack myself so fast those boots wouldn’t touch stirrups.
“I just love it up here. You’ve got the sexiest landscape,” Eyes shining, arms waving with fingers spread to the edge of the frame, Katherine meant what she said, “I grew up in Muskoka, lots of water, but nothing like these hills. This’s real backwoods. Really raunchy, I love it!”
Squealing sarcasm, I love it! I love it! Muskoka? How grand of you. Backwoods, eh? Bay’s thought turned to Sam, I need to sit for this one, Salmon, she misses a fence in my house, you’re barred. Stabbing her fork into the mattress of straw, she reached for the latch, “This is going to take more than a minute. We’ll go into the house, then.” The basset lay on his back at Sam’s feet, begging a scratch as Bay passed to the gate, “You’re a slut,” she said, to no one in particular.
The big dogs crowded without aggression, but their size and unblinking attention slowed progress through the kennel and summer kitchen to the door. Almost convinced she’d just been called a slut by this giant__ What? Turtle, that’s what she looks like, a great big ugly redneck turtle bitch!__ Katherine’s nose snapped shut at a whiff of spoiled meat. Eyes squinting in the gloom, her pupils grew wide to see a threatening avalanche of filthy pack-ratted rubbish, her lips pinched tight to sip shallow air and her fear panicked for a thought. Something’s died in here. I’ll get polio. What do these dogs eat? Why’d he bring me here? Ohmygod, I’m gonna throw up. No! She looked hard at the woman’s dirty big hand flipping the glove and took hold. Pointing to the rusted-out doorknob she elbowed Sam’s ribs as she passed in, “You’re a carpenter. Why don’t you fix that for her?”
Sam ignored her because that was the kind of thing women said. Workin’ a tag team, goin’ for your balls. Bay ignored her because the glove worked just fine, thank you, worn into a tighter fit than the latch ever was, and she only barely smirked as she rolled her eyes at Sam and asked if he was opening those beers, or would somebody rather a glass of wine? Then swallowing her annoyance, “Certainly. Red, or white?” she stooped to tug a bottle rattling from a paper sack buried under the table, lifted a bunch of black bananas stuck to a bag spilling chocolate rosebuds to get at a corkscrew and lumbered into the pantry in faint hope of finding the woman a clean glass.
“You’ve got a black ten on a black jack here, B…”
“You touch those cards, I’ll shoot you, Salmon. Go sit down,” A big-mouthed goblet next the sink showed a few finger marks that would come off with a polish of flannel shirt and the crust of red in the bottom wouldn’t matter once it got some wine into it, “Go on into the den. You might have to clear the couch a bit,” Bay huffed a breath into the glass, rubbed and hollered, “Leave that stove alone!”
Katherine’s eyes were so wide her mouth wouldn’t work, her response to Bay having been little more than a red grunt, for she’d never in her life seen such a sight. Appalling as it was, the mess of the summer kitchen wasn’t an unknown, for she’d been in more than one old hippie hutch in her time, and her own back shed in the city had once earned her a threat from an insurance agent. People did live with that, but this… this… the glove in the door hadn’t kept this out.
“I’d clean, but I can’t find the vacuum.” They stood, drinks and cigarettes in hand, in the front parlour, Bay letting the woman look because she’d asked. Despite an overwhelming cram of tables and chairs and sofas and benches and whatnots, it was a pleasing room with a deep bay of windows opposite a tall fireplace set in a wall of dark cupboards and shelves piled with books and curios. A thick nap of grey dust lay on every surface and like fishnets, tossed stockings, Isadora’s chiffon, brown cobwebs hammocked across corners, draped windows and pictures and swagged down the walls. “Haven’t seen it for years, but it’s here somewhere.” Strangers often shied at sight of the kitchen and never came back, the few who wanted to see more of the house usually gave Bay good reason not to invite their return.
Bay watched the woman look about, watched the brow that was raised in a certain amused contempt widen then narrow, startled and suspicious, as her stare picked out marquetry, tapestry, carved mahogany, ormolu and ebony amongst the junk of piled books and papers, overflowing ashtrays and filthy glasses. Bay saw the glint of covetousness and the hand that failed to keep itself from grabbing up a bowl of crystal chased with silver, the brush at dust and tipping out of mouse dirt.
“You don’t use this? You should use this, it’s a beautiful thing. I wouldn’t hide it in a… heap of… stuff. You don’t use it?” Her desire darting from bowl to split velvet chairback to bronze lion paw, Katherine’s eyes skimmed Bay’s hoping for signs of uncaring stupidity, or at least a grand generosity that would let her have the bowl, let her at this room. At this house! Stupid’s better, a couple of bucks for dirty junk. If she gives it, I’ll have to be nice back.
Keeping her own brow free of contempt, Bay swallowed her anger with a mouthful of beer and lit another cigarette from her stub until the woman finally put the bowl back down with a tidying, dismissive poke at the rim. Bay expected greed to have the intelligence to disguise itself, she saw no breeding to speak of, “We’ve left Sam to himself, he’ll be bored. Shall we?” With a tip of her head toward the door for ceremony, she herded Katherine back across the wide hall to the den and a perilous seat in the centre of a lumpy couch piled both ends with yellowed newspapers and mashed cartons.
From her chair of state, a ponderous oak Morris with room for a picnic, Bay delivered conversation largely predicated upon CBC programming, city newspapers and anything to do with horses, her critical pitch coloured with the snobberies of a conscious intelligence, a richly embroidered heritage and a long addiction to tales of English crime. She fancied herself a raconteur and polished her stories with a desire to entertain that prevented interruption of the newest telling, “…and he’s still training! Man beats his horses, I know it. Jockey Club won’t turf him, he must know something. Bastard wins races though. Did I ever tell you about the Cup race that…” and “…it’s all about oil, oil and armaments. Did you know that Krupp…” and “…all of those ‘best friends’ who popped out of the woodwork when Margaret died? Christ! Who d’ you think took her that last bottle of scotch? Umhum. Did I ever tell you…”
Sam drank beer, smoked joints and asked silly enough questions to spur her at fences. Katherine made one attempt to speak and was told not to be silly, that wasn’t the way at was at all, so she lowered her mask and confined herself to the bottle of wine Bay had brushed aside rubbish to set before her. I could certainly do a better job on this place if it was mine. What a godawful waste! She’s somebody to know, though, so keep smiling, act interested.
When Bay finished her set, she was pleased with her performance, but she thought of the stable, “Won’t be mucked out by spring, you two sit around talking. Nice to have met you. Go home now.” Sam had trouble getting his head off the back of the chair, his hands pawing his pockets to know where he was. Katherine had polished herself with the wine to an edge that was fated to cut a wide swath through whatever pathetic pretensions passed for local colour. One queen per valley. No competition. Bay let the dogs bark goodbye, watching the woman bang her truck door on a dangling lap belt all the while Sam crawled himself in, found the ignition and rolled them out of the yard.
“I want that,” Katherine said, “I want that woman’s life. Pull over here.” And they had undignified, but explosive sex on the seat of the truck.

Martin knew, when the bus finally wheezed into the downtown depot, that he’d seen every one-horse armpit in the province. Didn’t need the white trash in the back seat with her tits out for her screaming brat to prove it was a milkrun. Fuck, fuck, fuck, his heels cracked concrete the five blocks to his building. Them, them, them, it’s always whatever fucking women want! Think they can get away with fucking murder just ‘cause they’ve got holes. Well, so do I. He missed a stride in a flush of new embarassment, released the pressure to his buttocks and sashyed on to his apartment door.
When he picked up his phone to check calls, a violent shudder made him miss the message code. Christ! I need a bath. I need a shower and a shampoo and a bath and these clothes are going straight down the incinerator. He repunched his way through to hear there were no new messages, nobody’d called, not even the office, nobody’d missed him, nobody cared, and he exploded in snot and tears. He cried as he stripped before the bathroom mirror, watching his face, his chest, his whole body swell with pain and redden with fury, till it disappeared in the rising steam of hot running water meeting thoughts of cold revenge.

David stripped to his shorts when he got home, gave himself a beer and a half hour to wait for the call, gave himself another beer and dialed Paul’s number.
“Hello? No. No, I’m sorry, Paul’s no longer here. This is Terry. Hmm? Did you? Oh, sorry, I just flew in this minute, haven’t had a chance at my calls. I always get a little martini together before I push the button. David, is it? Did you know him well? You certainly have a lovely telephone voice. I’m sure I remember Paul telling me all about you. Are you tall? Oh, yes, you’re that David. Well, you know what he’s like then, don’t you? The silly tit went all bolshi and quit his job and went back to Bannock. To his mother’s! Can you believe that? Total regression. What? Oh, guilt, obviously. From the little he said about Friday night, I’m not surprised. He’s a mess, poor boy had to take a bus ! I’m so sorry. He is a pet, isn’t he? It all seems so empty now. You wouldn’t be interested in sharing an apartment, would you? Your own room, of course. I’m not that kind of person. Paul would tell you that. You could call him up there in Bannock, apparently they do have the telephone. I’m sure I have his mother in the Rolodex, and he can tell you that I’m a very easy room… Oh, you have it. Well, that’s nice. You wouldn’t like to drop by for a drink and take a…? No. Well, qué sera. Tell the Polliwog I miss his wiggley tail. Byee!”

Minutes of the last Institute meeting were read, and once an amendment to the effect that it had been Velma Lettie’s suggestion to leave rosemary out of the fowl stuffing at the next church supper, and she’d meant all of the next church suppers__ it stuck in people’s dentures and, well it wasn’t really a necessary thing, just sage would be nice, there’s something a bit… gypsy, about rosemary__ once that was seconded in, the whole was quickly accepted without protest.
Helen McLean, Secretary/Treasurer, and therefore the one responsible for Velma’s urge to revisionism, whose front parlour housed this meeting, whose Royal Albert roses lay waiting for light refreshments on the diningroom table, softly read out the Auxiliary’s bank balance to date and prayed for no comment.
A letter of need from ‘Our Mission Overseas’ was read, and the bounty of a future bakesale voted in response. The never-ending quest for Maxine Aicheson’s good blue casserole dish was opened and closed with bored denials and the business of the Fowl Supper, the reason for the meeting, was taken in hand.
To these women the church kitchen was as familiar as their own and years of habit and sensibly delegated responsibility had devised a hierarchy of production from roasters to scullions that stood them in good stead and could feed any multitude a good plain banquet. Farm and village wives, widows and maidens, they provided what they had: turkeys, hens and cranberry sauce, carrots, corn, potatoes and peas, turnips, snap beans, yellow and green, tomatoes sliced, wedged and aspic-ed, cabbage salads, jellied salads and cucumbers pickled in a dozen recipes, buns, rolls, breads white and brown, apple pies, berry pies, cream pies and lemon meringues, cakes full of eggs and squares full of who-knows-what. The Reverend’s Anna provided the ice cream; it came from the dairy and never was billed.
The system was a shared effort with an instinctive sense of values. Good cooks cooked, indifferent cooks served, and everyone was supposed to help with the dishes. Bring more than needed, take home the leftovers with a bit of fair trading, an admirable system that had worked for generations. There was, of course, a certain amount of bickering. “Just vanilla, Anna, everyone likes that and it flatters the pie crusts that come out a little too dark.” Velma was heard with a silent wince; Helen invariably singed her pies, besides, the dairy always included chocolate for the children. “Vera and I will bring our icicles, a grand batch this year, if I say it who shouldn’t. And Vera’s toll-house cookies.” Another round of winces for the notorious blue pickles and for the dull cookies, bought and disguised in a wax-papered tin. “All agreed? Nothing else? Adjourned?” And without waiting for response, Velma heaved her bosom at the air and announced, “I spy with my little eye…” The sharp intake of the hostess’s breath spoke for all. “I spy with my little eye…” Rolling her head with the drama, Velma paused, raised a knuckle to a cough at her lips, “…something that is… Well, brown! Unfortunately.” Spoken on a falling breath.
It was a fourth year and Velma felt the want of executive position, one President, one Vice and a Secretary/Treasurer being the limit of hierarchy. Most of the women, Vera excepted__ the Presidency had been suggested once, but Velma’s manner of refusal on her sister’s behalf had driven the nominator into the United Church__ most of the women had held one or another of the offices, irregularly, at need, to their abilities, over the years, but Velma needed office and revolved through each of the three in a regular rotation, then, like crops, lay fallow once in four years to give the earth a chance to catch its breath.
Her fallow year was a self-imposed penance for the sins of pride and envy and greed and avarice and… all the active sins but one, and it was sorely felt. Velma out of office suffered in opposition and was quick to revolt, rebellion, war; it was felt to be safer to give her her head when it came to Entertainment. “Yes, brown, I’m afraid, though I’d like to be able to say it’s gleaming, what I spy with my little eye is brown.” It was an unhappy judgement rendered with a comfortable sigh as Velma stared expectantly about at the other women variously swallowed into, or perched about the furniture.
At home, of course, Velma tortured her sister and was tortured in return. Velma played Father, the cold and autocratic Albert. Vera played Mother, Annie, with the victim’s faultless blade. No matter the weight of Velma’s ordered contempt, Vera would step and fetch it with alarming patience. Albert had ignored them because they were girls and Annie had dressed them identically to double his sight of them.
When they were out afoot, or rolling in the Rambler through the village streets, the Girls played ‘License Plates’, matching the numbers seen in unexpected driveways with the registered owner’s proper address, the wife’s maiden name, the number of kiddies, all noted in Vera’s pencil-licked script in a series of Hilroy exercise books. They did nothing with the license numbers, no spinning of a mathematical cosmos, no necromancy or beastly numerology, not even vague little notes under windshield wipers; it was enough that the village suspected the game.
‘I spy’ was Velma’s favourite in other women’s parlours and Vera was easily best at guessing. Vera knew it was the spun-copper bowl in the middle of the oval of polished cherry with the more-or-less Ffyfe pedestal that served as a… Well, not big enough, really, for tea, but she didn’t think it was a cocktail table – from what she understood they were quite large and very low – as low as the lives of people with cocktail tables could be expected to be, according to Velma – so it wasn’t a cocktail table, though Velma swore there was drinking in this house – so perhaps… Vera decided it would probably hold an ashtray if necessary. Anyway, it was the copper bowl that Vera knew that Velma had her eye on, because it was tarnished, muddy really, in an untidy smear around the rim, and Velma had standards.
Vera wondered whether Helen McLean knew that Velma knew that the bowl had been a gift from Doctor Gelly; knew, indeed, that Velma made a collection of widows accepting gifts from men, and decided that of course Helen suspected it, and that was very likely worse.
Quite naturally, Vera couldn’t leap right in and answer to her sister’s game with the copper bowl. Velma called it smart-alecky when Vera answered without hesitation. “No one likes a smart-aleck, Vera, you don’t want to be one of those people with their brains coming out of their ears, like the Standeven boys, do you? Of course not, and it looks like favouritism, too. Wait until the others have had a chance to play, and then if it looks too hard for them and they give up, you can jump in, but don’t make a spectacle of yourself.” So Vera waited.
Hands folded in her lap, Bea McAlpine sat on a kitchen chair brought in to the parlour door. The chair was a wooden pressed-back, one of seven-plus-armchair, that Bea knew Helen said were inherited, though no one could decide whether that was pride or excuse. Helen McLean, neé Hoy, was so impassive of expression that some suspected the blood of the tribes; there was something of a streak in the Hoys and they tended to heaviness, big-boned, they called it.
Well, Bea wasn’t big enough boned to be comfortable in their darned pressed-back chairs, that’s for sure, her feet couldn’t touch the floor unless she propped her panty-girdle against the hard edge of the seat, which would certainly send the chair skittering back into the hall, so her shoulders were being printed with a fretted scroll and her suede pumps hung in the air.
Lord! Was she glad it wasn’t her year to be Secretary/Treasurer, the only job she allowed herself to be invited into. Keeping the record straight when Velma was in opposition could be more than your life was worth; Velma as President knew you were on her side, Velma out knew you weren’t. Poor Helen. And in her own house, too. Double jeopardy. Hung for the sheep and the lamb. The horror is, Velma thinks we all like this game – Bea’s armholes were chafing – she believes protest is a lack of moral fibre. She believes herself. She has only to look at Vera and see that she copies well. With one true believer how could she not have twenty? A hundred? All. She’s never actually seen Vera, just a reflection. And Vera’s funny, in a stupid, stubborn way. Mulish. The thing about Vera is that she’s never believed Velma for a minute.
Just look at her__ Bea looked at Vera without moving her head__ still and taut as a mantis with a fly in her eye, she knew it was going to be that copper bowl before her sister opened her mouth. She doesn’t miss a thing, probably picked on the bowl herself and sent the thought to Velma. It’s a nice bowl, too, though I don’t know what you’d put in it. Helen might’ve had enough sense to hide the thing, if I know where it came from, sure as shootin’ Velma does. If men are giving presents, we all know how they’re paid for! Poor old Helen’s just not on her toes. I owe her this one, she’s saved me from opening the door to the Girls in my old bathrobe too many times with a fast phone call, “Would it be that lovely copper bowl, Velma Lettie?”
It was a dangerous game. Bea was almost certain that the Girls had gone visiting up to Tier on Sunday after church and couldn’t possibly have returned early enough to have spied her crossing the lawn to the manse in the company of George Preston, and the return to George’s boat at the end of her crumpled dock after their evening of rum punch and cards had been carefully conducted along the darkness of the riverbank, and she, herself, had avoided George’s shopping trip Monday by hiding out in Orillia. Still, there was no proof Velma couldn’t nose a cold trail.
It was a dangerous game and Bea had to clear a nervous cough before going all the way, “I have to tell you, Helen, I’m ashamed of myself. I couldn’t resist when I came in, I had to pick that bowl up for a look, it’s such a lovely thing, and Velma’s quite right, I’ve gone and made a mess of it. Must have had something on my hands.” Bea offered her palms as proof of the lie, “Butter! Of course, I set out the scones, didn’t I, Helen? Yes. And they’re rich. You still use butter for your fat, don’t you, Helen? I don’t…” She had to steer off quickly, the Letties having been the first to substitute margarine on the excuse that if Velma couldn’t taste the difference, then who on earth, etcetera.
“Yes, Beatrice, that brown bowl.” Not pleased with the answer, at least one wrong guess and a good deal of hesitation were expected as part of the game, Velma’s mouth had gone hard at the word butter.
Bea was forced to sacrifice, “I don’t dare, myself. Why, I’d be as big as a house if I used butter.”
“Yes, Beatrice, you’ve always been one to put it on,” passing a thumb up her own spare breast, Velma condescended, “but you are good with a jellied salad. As everyone should be. And your mother, of course, with her squares…? Saturday? Yes. And Katherine…? No. Ah, well,” Rolling her eyes around the assembly, accepting homage, Velma cleared her throat with satisfaction and passed on the game, “Very well, it’s your turn to spy, Beatrice. That blue china cat’s an unusual thing. Did you have that done to your hair in town, then? Sit up straight, Vera.”
Dumped in the yard after stuffing Martin onto the bus, Katherine saying she’d call and spinning his mother’s gravel in her rush back to Sam, Paul’s relief had turned sour. Thanks for finding Sam for her? How terribly gracious of her. Not, ‘thanks for your noble sacrifice’, not ‘thanks for losing your job and blowing up your future’! Oh no, not even ‘thanks for baby-sitting my rejected friend Martin and keeping him from eating out my throat when I threw a drink in his face and made him go home’. Oh, no, it’s thanks for giving her big red Sambo. You’re welcome, Missy. I saw him in the shop and just knew you had to have him. Local craft, apparently. I’d’ve unwrapped him for you, if I’d had the chance.
He’d gone back to Sam’s from the Arlen. Katherine had objected, Sam had smirked and Brad had looked impassive, but Paul had insisted. He still wasn’t sure why. The street had been empty, the Arlen unlit, Sam’s truck alone in the lot when they’d pulled into Manooth. Brad had yanked open a battered tin door in the side of the hotel and led them in darkness past rancid grills and ovens, through saloon doors and a maze of tables just visible by streetlamp, to a pine door and the yellow light of the bar.
Joe Snow was smearing a tabletop with a bar rag, he nodded at Brad, then studied an ashtray for butts before knocking it into a can and giving it a wipe. Sam sat perched on a siderail of the pool table, a beer clutched in his thighs, his chin on one shoulder to watch his own hand behind guide a cue in idle shots on the end pocket, the white ball churning back from the fall to go again.
“That all you get for last call?” Brad eyed the bottle in Sam’s crotch.
“Uum, yah, Lois wanted to lock. I said I’d be out before Joe. It’s all she’d give me. What’d you do, drink me dry and come lookin’ for more? Y’ got a lotta fuckin’ nerve.”
“There’s still some bourbon left, if…” Damn! I should’ve told that little fuck to keep his hands off the bottle. Pushing up beside Brad, Katherine flashed Sam her most seductive, top of the eyes, don’t be brutal but take me look, “I made them bring me. I had to find you. Martin’s leaving. He always causes trouble. I’m putting him on the bus in the morning. I need you to get my car, I’ll follow you to your place. These guys are going back into town,” Laying a hand on Brad’s wrist, nipping her lower lip, “Thank you for the ride.” She turned her look on Paul, her mouth drooped with woeful courage and her eyes said she could take it from here, thank you. Paul drew her gaze with a look to Sam, who saw the frowning mouth and hungry eyes, who turned with a glance that caught both Paul and Brad on its way back to the cue ball.
“Help yourself, there’s a box under the bar sink Lois doesn’t know about,” Sam raised his voice across the room, “Eh, Joe? Joe gets a beer for every hour I don’t have to listen to his goddamned bear story. Don’t you, Joe? He busts a couple cases a week that way, it’s those rotted-out steps to the cellar. Dangerous, eh, Joe? You could break a leg, sue the bitch. Lois makes him clean this dump to pay for what she thinks he breaks, but he’s just not goin’ home, Missus Joe won’t let him have beer in the house. Chew off the other ear, wouldn’t she, Joe? They buy some beers off ya?”
That had probably been about the time, Paul considered as he picked a wind-fallen limb from his mother’s lawn, that he’d decided he wasn’t about to be dismissed like some busboy with the water pitcher, that he wasn’t going to take the nickle and get on his bike just because she said so, that he was going to do his duty as a friend and go back to Sam’s. That had certainly been the moment when he’d emptied his pocket into Joe Snow’s hand for a round of beers.
So what in hell am I gonna do now? I’ve got cigarette and coffee money left for about a week, and there isn’t a job in this town anybody’d give me. I’ll be trapped in this house forever and turn into Boo Radley and haunt the porch at the dark of the moon. There isn’t any porch. Exactly. This’s all been a terrible mistake, I shouldn’t have left, I shouldn’t’ve quit, I shouldn’t’ve opened my big mouth to Elizabeth Preston for the honour of art and that ungrateful, drink-slinging bitch who just dumped me so she could get back to her screwing.
Sam had held out for a round from each of them and bought one himself with, “Mark me up for four, eh, Joe. Get y’ Tuesday. You still got plenty till sun-up, the Missus’ll have the stove lit and you can go home.” The thing was, they’d been fast beers, too fast, for despite the laid-back set of his shoulders as he circled the table swooping at balls, Sam’s need to hold the stick in his hands was skunked by his desire to get laid. Some more. Fuck, she’s hot!
Katherine, of course, matched him swallow for swallow, taking a good deal of neck. Brad kept his beers out of sight, appeasing the Road God with the last inch in each bottle. Paul had just gotten plastered. If he was going to force himself into this situation and demand to go back to Sam’s for the sake of a kindness to Martin, a move she would resent for his very presence, and which Sam would condemn as a weakness, even if he was doing it for the sake of annoying the hell out of her just because he didn’t think her sense of entitlement justified his own easy dismissal, and even if he did really want another crack at Martin’s ass because god only knew when he’d have another chance, Paul had needed to be pissed.
There was a trick to finding a working plug socket in his mother’s kitchenful of gadgets, locate the toaster and switch plugs. Paul sorted a clutch of appliance cords and put on the kettle for tea. Maybe Sammy’ll give me a job, he’ll need an extra pair of hands if he takes her on and she’s for real about building her own place. Brad can’t help him in the week. I can carry stuff, hold stuff. Hell, we could be a real team, me barkin’ up the suckers, doin’ the up-front part to keep him out of people’s faces, and him doin’ the carpentry. Could happen, y’ never know. Oh sure, you’re in Bannock, remember? You’re not in multiculture land, now, JimBob. Team an Injun up with a queer and you’ll have a real goin’ concern, big time, for sure. Sam’s right, you have to play the church or the boy clubs if you want to do business in Bannock. Get on the team. Buy insurance. Study the bible. Sponser the team. Breed. Buy more insurance. Feed to each other, keep the ball and the game can go on and on. Oh, quit your whining, you both belong here, they’d have taken to you if you’d ever taken to them. Face it, Magarry, the only thing you liked about teams was the locker room, and the only thing Sam liked was pretending they were a posse. You’re loners. Moody loners. Not yet, but it can happen, so quit with the victim shit. You’ve played with two boys’ clubs in the past twelve hours, you can hardly say you’re out of the game. One of them was actually a very mature man’s club. All right already! It must be the fresh air.
Katherine’s impatience finally had driven them from the Arlen. She’d known she was fast reaching the slide zone between sex and the unconcious, she wanted this day to go away now, to sleep it off until she was ready for her next move, so if she didn’t get laid in the next hour… “Let’s move it. Where’s my car?”
“Over the road and up the end there,” Sam tipped his head in the direction of the street, racked his cue, upended a last swallow, “We’re doin’ this in the dark, so we walk it, you an’ me. Haul ass.” On his way to the door he scowled at Brad, “Wait, till I’m back to the truck,” and holding the door for Katherine to pass, he scowled at Paul, “Fuck, you’re a sloppy drunk, Magarry.”
Whew! I am so drunk and horny, I could suck six cocks all at once and not come up for air until I’d swallowed it all. Whew! Don’t lose it now, Polliwog, sit up straight and breathe from your belly. Remember you want to… “Wait! Sammy, me too, I’m coming!”
With a smirk, “Don’t get it on ya,” Sam let the door swing and said, “I’ll be back.” before it slammed shut.
You bring it back and I’ll take it to the nuts, either end. Paul swung around for a look at Brad’s crotch. Both ends at once. Whew! I am a pig. Haven’t been this kind of horny for a long, long time, a long time. That faggy little virgin queen’s done it to me, I’m a horn dog all over again. Wide open! I want cock. I wanta fuck it, I wanta suck it, stick it and lick it, make me do it, sit on my face and let me kiss it and clean it, oh, just fuck me! He moved so fast his mouth was inside Brad’s fly licking skin before Brad managed to set his beer on the end of the bar and rest his hands on his hips. Not pushed away, Paul slipped one hand in and pulled a heavy cock out into his mouth to give suck, the other hand fumbled for his own. Brad stiffened. Paul breathed, “Fuck me hard,” and slammed the big cock again and again to the back of his throat. Give it to me! Let me have it. Fuck my face! Come in me, please, come in me! Oh, let me taste it, let me have it, fuck me! Y’ wanta fuck my pussy? Fuck my ass? I’ll be your cunt. You fuck it, you fuck my cunt? Come up my pussy? Blow your load way up inside me? Oh, come in me! “Let me have it…” Whaaa! Clapping a hand to Paul’s head, Brad blew to the sound of Joe Snow’s boots on the basement stairs, had himself re-zipped and his beer in hand before Paul could stop swallowing and grab a deep breath. He’d been still on his knees when Joe came round the end of the bar, and he’d shocked himself with a fleeting consideration before struggling to his feet, “I was sure it was a contact lens. Just a bit of beer glass.”
Once he had tea made, Paul spent the afternoon replenishing the pot and avoiding his mother, dodging from room to room, ducking her questions about who that Martin was and why was he here? And who was that hard looking woman, it was a woman, was it? who dropped him off, and where was she from? And where had he been last night, did he think he could just treat this house like some kind of hotel and when did he figure on getting back to his job, which didn’t seem to her to be too awful if he could just take time off when he felt like it, was he sure he wasn’t going to be in trouble? and why would he want to wear pants that looked like that? the knees all bagged out and filthy.
Paul had swiped at his knees to keep his head down as the wave of adrenaline had soured into his belly in the after-shock of having gone too far. How to get yourself into serious trouble, boy, you can’t lose it like that and live, not in this neighbourhood. He didn’t stop me. He mightn’t’ve thought it possible, you might bite it off. What’s he know? Sam’s always on about teeth. Yah, yah, what’re you going to say now? “You want to do that again? No! Sorry, sorry, that’s not what I meant to say. Listen, sorry, I don’t care what she wants, I’m going back to Sam’s. She can make Martin go home, if he wants to let her, but she doesn’t have to be so goddamned mean about it, and she’s not making you and me go home just ‘cause she’s done with us and we’re in her road now. Oh, no, I don’t think so.” Paul had steadied his gaze at last on Brad’s eyes, barely voicing the question, “Y’ all right?” He saw wariness relax and a tiny nod, and grinned with relief, “You do have to go home, though, ‘cause if you’re not here when Sam comes back, he has to take me. He won’t dump me, not here, anyway, I can trust him for that. He won’t like it, but I can work him.”
Brad couldn’t help the smile, “You are one shit stirrin’ son of a bitch, Magarry.”
“All your fault, Fell, you’re the one forced me. Wasn’t my idea.”
Brad’d grinned and snorted, “What? You callin’ rape, now?”
“Oh, yah, you made me do it. And, you forced me to talk to those two on Sunday night, and that’s why we’re standing around this hole in the wall waitin’ for Geronimo to saddle-up his white woman and ride on back to the tepee. You’re going home before you cause me any more trouble and I’m ridin’ out with the Indian. I’m used to him thinkin’ he can tell me what to do, but that one, she’s got another think comin’. So scram.” Paul had dropped his eyes to Brad’s crotch and pouted, “Unless…?”

Eventually, hunger drew him to the dinner table where he sparred with his mother over pot roast and tea in an old familiar teasing battle that Paul couldn’t win, because she was his mother. She served up a bakery butter tart and retreated to her corner with the last cup of tea. When the phones rang, she answered the one by her rocker and said, “Yes, he is,” smiling at his head-shaking glare over the dining table. Partly relenting, she asked if she could say who’s calling, and pushed the handset at him as she strove for footing, “Says it’s David Bailey. Why don’t you sit here? I’ll make more tea.” Paul mouthed the words ‘Oh shit!’ as she turned into the kitchen and earned himself a glare from the eyes in the back of her head.
What in hell’s he calling me for? Does he know Katherine’s up here? How’d he… “How’d you find me? Where’d you get this number?”
“You forget who I work for. Vee haf vays, eh?” A flicker of guilt, and David thought that even Paul didn’t need to know the reach of the ministry’s arm. He’d never been to a proctologist, but he knew what it meant, “I got your friend Terry’s number from the Gallery, he said you were up there and I was kinda worried you might be feeling bad about Friday night, so I thought I’d give a holler. You all right? They said you quit.”
Do I tell him where she is? Does he care? “You’re surprised?”
“Well, I suppose not really. You did kinda bust your paddle on the Dragonlady’s back the other night, but you should’ve waited till they fired you, Paul, you’ve screwed yourself for UI. Takes a while for them to drag you through the dirt, but you’d get something out of it.”
“What’s a little dirt? You think Dragonlady wouldn’t rip out my heart and grind that in the dirt, if she could get at me? So I’ve screwed myself. Huh, I should be so lucky.” A door of the cupboards which hung low above the island work-counter, all that separated kitchen from diningroom, Paul from his mother, their vitals exposed, smacked shut by his ear. “Well, yah, maybe I do care. I’m sure lookin’ at one black hole of a future here. You have no idea.” Straining cords, Paul managed what distance he could.
“I take it the black hole’s your mother’s house. Just you and her?”
“Umhum.”
“I take it she can hear you.”
“Umhum. Always. Doesn’t even have to listen. It’s your seventh daughter of a seventh daughter thing, tuned right into the ether, she would’ve been torched a few years back. Might be yet, there’s a taste for amateur theatre up here, a little auto da fé could draw a crowd.”
“That bad, eh? What’d you go back there for?”
“For the sex, seemingly,” Paul whimpered, “Oh god, I’m in trouble, David, I shouldn’t have done what I did.”
“What, quit?”
“No! Mouthed off to Elizabeth Preston for puttin’ the screws to your wife. Who is, by the way, speaking of screws, and I still don’t know why, but she turned up at the Arlen Sunday night with that flaming little queen, Martin, who is a whole other story, let me tell you. Anyway, she’s shacked up out the highway with my old friend Sam,” Paul held his breath for a moment of silence and decided he’d made it bad enough without mentioning Katherine’s plan, “Sorry, guy, I had to say it, I really can’t take not being told these things when they happen. Saves a lot of grief.”
David drew a long, tight breath to the bottom of his lungs and remembered first hurts, “You, you yourself, you can’t take not being told. Is that it? That’s your apology, is it? Why am I even talking to you? What happened to don’t ask, don’t tell? You and your goddamned gestalt. Okay. Okay. Fine. I suppose I should’ve rehearsed this, it was bound to happen, not your fault. So, she is, is she? Well, good luck to her. I guess. What can I say? I left her. I haven’t got a leg to stand on.”
“And I haven’t got a pot to piss in and I really don’t care either,” Breathless and dizzy from escaping the attachment of blame, Paul tumbled further into relief, “Because I’m still amazed that I put up with all that bullshit as long as I did. I’ll hand in any fifty IQ points they ask for, if I never have to hear the words ‘world class’ ever again. I’d rather sit on the couch and be simple. That’s what I’m gonna do, I’ll be simple. They must have a club. And I’ll be so simple, I won’t even join it.”
“Who’s club, what the hell’re you…?”
“The simple! Why shouldn’t they have a club? You got something against them? They don’t fit into the ministry’s paradigm anymore? Into the streets they drove the fifty thousand, the socially lame disposables in a take-out culture. Extras resting on sidewalk grates.”
“Jesus, Paul, back off, take a breath, you couldn’t be simple if you tried. You know as well as I do, we do what we’re told, and as long as these self-righteous golfers are in power the money’s gonna stay tight. The economy’s…”
“The economy is that a cardboard coffin’s a fuck of a lot cheaper than a roof and a meal. Money’s always tight, David, you’ve been working for them ‘way too long. You guys’ve brought back the workhouse, but it hasn’t got a roof.”
“Yah, well, I hear a lot of that at work. So listen, if there’s anything I can do to help you get off the…”
“Help me get off? Oh David, I wish. Help me, help me, marry me up and take me away from all this!”
“Jesus, you can be a pain in the ass, Paul. Well, you know what? I just happened to remember this morning that there’s a do up in Strawbridge this Sunday, a Fowl Supper at the church Katherine’s mother goes to. It’s the real old-fashioned shindy with gravy and pickles and home-made pies like you wouldn’t believe. And Tillie’s always up for it, her grandmother, you met her, she’s good for a couple cocktails beforehand. It’d be dry bones if Bea was on her own. I guess Katherine must’ve forgotten about it. Won’t be thinkin’ about it now, for sure. Anyway, what d’ you think? Sounds like hickorama, but it’s really not. Want to go?”
“You out of your mind? I wasted my pubescence in a church basement and…”
“Not a basement, they’ve got a hall. We’re talking stone-built Anglicans, not stone-faced Baptists, and everybody wastes pubescence, Paul, between diaper sizes it’s the only chance you get to really blow your wad. Honest to god, it’s the best food, like Christmas dinner used to be before they discovered salsa. Hell, before they discovered garlic. They actually do jello mold things with stuff in ‘em, shaved carrots, celery. Bea does a green one that’s really weird, but it tastes great, like green cheese aspic, or something, not like it sounds, really.” Hearing his own plaintive voice, David dropped an octave and changed course, “How the hell’d she get up there? She talk to you? I haven’t seen, or heard a word from any of them since they left you and me standing in the parking lot. I suppose she took Marty home with her, he needed somebody’s help, but I don’t know if Bea stayed. Likely not, she’d take Tillie back and stay at her place. Did you see her? Katherine?”
“Not till Sunday night when they came waltzing into the Arlen like high noon with a fistful of dollars lookin’ to dance with the cowboys. I couldn’t see why they’d be after me, wasn’t me cut the rope, but she said she just decided to say fuck it all and go on a tour far from the madding crowd, and somebody’d told her Manooth was basic backwoods with a bar, so up she came. Pure coincidence.”
“Yah, sure.”
“That’s what I said, too. She’s dangerous.”
“Oh, she’s dangerous, all right. Things happen to her. She makes them happen.”
“She’s got a way about her, I noticed that.”
“Huh!” a wry snort from David, “Her way, or the highway.” She doesn’t mean to be a bitch, but…”
“Hey, you don’t know what she did to poor Marty. She’s a bitch, David. And right now, when I need Sam to give me a job, she’s got him so cunt-struck he can’t find the door.”
“You know, I’d just as soon not hear…”
“Yah, sorry. But, hey, you know, that Martin’s a real jerkoff. Jesus! If he was ever in the closet, he’s out now. Wants to marry me. I’m not kidding.”
“Marry you? What’d you do, get pregnant?”
“Very funny, chauvanist pig. He was here, I was horny, big deal. Wrong. Late virginity. Whee! Out of the closet and into the aisle in a twenty foot train with a bouquet of sweethearts. Haven’t had that happen since highschool, made my skin crawl then, makes my skin crawl now. Thank god she put the run on him, stuffed him on the bus this morning. I’m surprised he hasn’t called you already, she was sure he’d be back climbing your leg and telling you what a two-faced bitch she is. He’s just itchin’ to get back at her for dumpin’ him for Sam. He owes her a drink.”
“What’d she do to him?”
“Threw her drink at him.”
“Ah, shit. What for?”
“He was ridin’ her about bein’ after Sam’s ass.”
“Okay, so who the hell’s Sam? Not that I want to know, but…”
“Oh, Sammy’s a local stud, always has been. He’s Indian, maybe, could be Irish, we don’t know, the truth’s lost in the mists of time and Father Ambrose’s whisky brain, but he’s been playin’ Geronimo since we were all old enough to poke a stick, so nobody argues anymore. He’s a hunk, if you like the rough-trade look. I’ve always had a weakness for it myself. He builds stuff, he’s a good carpenter when he feels like it, but he’s always been a bit full of himself, and he can be a mean bastard, so he’s not exactly overwhelmed with work.”
“It’s never the guy on the Redimix truck, is it? Fat guy in overalls. It’s always the carpenter.”
“Seems like. I think it’s the belt. Tools hangin’ to the knee, all those pouches with hard things stickin’ out of them, I understand the attraction. First time I ever heard Carly Simon do You’re So Vain , I figured she’d just done a carpenter, but it’s always kinda like young girls and horses, eh, first flush is hot and then all that attention to grooming… Outta here! And Sam’s such an ignorant swine, I don’t expect this’ll last out the week, he’s just not your new-man kinda guy, politically, or otherwise, there’s nothing correct about him.”

“She’ll use you and abuse you, Sammy, you know that. Don’t you?” The pickup had careened down from the heights of Manooth, chased from a roaring start and randomly fired upon with bursts of hostility from Katherine who followed behind.
Sam had wrenched the wheel in a fishtail slide down a tight ess of gravel to a narrow bridge. He slowed to hold it in his lights, “Woman’s a goddamned tailgater. What the fuck you talkin’ about, Magarry?”
“She’s usin’ you to get laid, isn’t she?”
Sam had snorted disgust, “I think I know who’s usin’ who for a fuck, Magarry.”
“Yah, sure, okay. Stu-udmuffin. She’s got plans for you, Sammy my son, she is gonna live up here.”
“Not with this Indian.”
“Well, Martin bought himself a drink with that suggestion, but she says she wants her own place. She says. But it’s you she’s following home, Sam.”
“No fuckin’ way some broad’s movin’ in on me. I’m tellin’ you that, Magarry. No way!”
“Actually, I think she thinks you’re gonna build it for her.”
“She got money? I’ll do’er for money, but I’m not bossin’ some barn-raisin’ with a buncha bush hippies. Done that, brown rice and home-brewed dog piss, y’ gotta be starvin’. You think she’s got the money?”
“I guess you’ll have to find out, won’t you? While you’re usin’ her.”
“I could use the work.”
“Oh, she’ll work you, Sambo. You saw the look.”
“Y’ didn’t see me jump to it, did ya?”
“Soon enough, Bowser, soon enough,” Paul had settled out of range into the corner of the truckcab and grinned to himself. Brad was right, you had to make do around here. Sam’d give him the gears over Martin, but he’d get his own shots in first, “You downed four beers in the time it took old Joe to wipe two tables. I think she’s got you by the foreskin already, Sammy, and she means to hang right on. Teeth, if she has to. Your days are numbered, my son, but don’t you worry, I’ll stand by you for old time’s sake and we’ll…”
“Shut up, Magarry! I don’t care what you think.”
“…dress Martin up for maid of hon…”
“Just shut… the fuck… up!”

David took a half breath of relief, “So, it’s not true romance, she’s not gonna be barefoot and pregnant? She hates babies, they won’t do what she says. It wouldn’t be a nurturing experience.”
“Hoo, no, not a chance, Sam’s worst nightmare’s a diaper pail. You should hear him on the subject. What comes before neanderthal? No, she’s safe, knowing Sam, he’ll have found something new by tomorrow, or he’ll just disappear till she takes the hint and packs it up.” Paul hoped he sounded reassuring to David, he didn’t feel so positive himself.
“Yah, so, anyway…” More than he’d wanted, less than he’d feared, David had heard enough and tried to change the subject, “…what d’ you think?”
“She’ll be home Friday, Sunday at the late…”
“The church supper, you flaming idiot!”
“Oh. I guess you’re right, ‘nuff said. I don’t know. How? You driving? Gonna come and get me? I haven’t got any way to get there from here, in fact, you can’t really get there from here. It’s either ‘way up and around, or ‘way down and around. Thanks anyway, but I think I’ll pass.”
“If I picked you up and delivered you right back, would you go?”
“Are you gonna do that?”
“I could.”
“You don’t have a car.”
“Don’t sweat the little stuff, I can borrow, I can rent, whatever. Point is, will you do it?”
“Why?”
“Oh, Jesus, Paul, I don’t know.” Suddenly exhausted, David had to remember why he’d called, “Because I want to go and I don’t want to do it alone. Okay? I don’t know… I need a hit of something, sentimentality, connection… I need a feel-good moment, a telephone commercial, or one of those Seventh Day Adventist moral moments. Know what I mean? I guess I’m lonesome.”
“Umhum, and why me? For that matter, what’s in it for me? Not that I’m like that, but if you want to be self-indulgent, what about me?”
“You get to fill up with the milk of human kindness. Empathy, sympathy, compassion, being kind to your old friend could make up for all the times you jerked off in the church basement.”
“Baptists can’t make deals like that, we have to give up the first born, or do without teeth, or go fix tractors for the pygmies. We can’t be just nice and own things, like Anglicans, we suffer.”
“Oh, I can make you suffer, if that’s what you want.”
“I wish. So, I’m supposed to do this because you feel lonesome, that it?”
“‘Cause I know you can do it. It’s been family. You know? I’m not exactly flush with family and I kinda got used to it. And now I’m gonna lose it. I want to go there one more time. And what the hell, I paid for two tickets, after all, and if she’s not going to be there it won’t hurt to take somebody else along.”
“Do I have to take pictures? Am I supposed to record this trip down memory lane? Something for the last page of the scrapbook? Hell, man, you want memory lane, come on up, I’m living down memory lane, a dose of this’d cure ya. You ever in Scouts? ‘Member the ‘Gone Home’ symbol, the trail marker?”
“Yah. What, a circle, or something?”
“With a dot in the middle. One little dot in the middle of the circle, that’s what you are down memory lane. Think about it.”
“Look, we both obviously need therapy. I’ve got some really good bud, we’ll suck back a couple of Tillie’s whisky sours, smoke our brains out, eat everything in sight, and you’ll remember the whole thing like a heritage moment. Honest. You can handle it. You’re the only person I can…”
“The only person you know, obviously. Couldn’t you have a warm moment with some nice tv friends, David? You want me to put up with your not-anymore-in-laws and do a sit-down bun fight in a church hall on a couple doobs and a cocktail, ‘cause you’re feelin’ like a Hallmark card? David, I would deserve marriage for a favour like that. Tell you what, you want a memory, I’ll give you a memory. You throw in a colour tour and I’ll give you a ride you’ll never forget.”
“Don’t start, Paul, please. I’ll forget you said that.”
“Yah, well, the leaves’re down anyway.”
“There y’ are, then, nuff said. So listen, I’ll pick you up noon, Sunday, just tell me where.”
“You out of your mind? It’s one hell of a drive, y’ know, take you three hours, anyway, just to get here. Must be another three to get back over to Strawbridge, you’d be doing a triangle, ‘way out of your way. And then what’d we do, come all the way back here after the bun fight? You’re nuts. You want to do this so bad, there must be somebody else’ll go with you from down there. Think about it, eh. You’re getting too carried away with this cheap sentiment thing.”
“No, I don’t want to think about it. I want some cheap sentiment, and no, there isn’t anybody else I want to do it with. You’re the only person I know who can make it fun instead of pathetic, so there. Where’s your sense of adventure, Paul? So, okay, maybe it is too much driving. What if I come up Saturday instead, stay the night, and we go over Sunday? Must be some kinda motel up there, eh? I’ll get a room, we can go out for some beers somewhere… Yah, what the hell, I haven’t had a blow out since Adam was a pup. Hey, maybe I’ll even get lucky. Got any wild women up there?”
“Oh man! You’re not going to listen to reason, are you? You’re really hot to do this, aren’t you? Okay, so, there’s a spare bed here you can…”