The paintings and other modern works of art in this book do not exist. Nevertheless, they have been influenced by visual artists Joyce Wieland, Jack Chambers, Charles Pachter, Erica Heron, Gail Geltner, Dennis Burton, Louis de Niverville, Heather Cooper, William Kurelek, Greg Curnoe, and pop-surreal potter Lenore M. Atwood, among others; and by the Isaacs Gallery, the old original. The physics and cosmology sideswiped herein are indebted to Paul Davies, Carl Sagan, John Gribbin, and Stephen W. Hawking, for their entrancing books on these subjects, and to my nephew, David Atwood, for his enlightening remarks about strings.
Many thanks to Graeme Gibson, for undergoing this novel; to my agent, Phoebe Larmore; to my English agents, Vivienne Schuster and Vanessa Holt; to my editors and publishers. Nan Talese, Nancy Evans, Ellen Seligman, Adrienne Clarkson, Avie Bennett, Liz Calder, and Anna Porter; and to my indefatigable assistant, Melanie Dugan; as well as to Donya Peroff, Michael Bradley, Alison Parker, Gary Foster, Cathy Gill, Kathy Minialoff, Fanny Silberman, James Polk, Coleen Quinn, Rosie Abella, C. M. Sanders, Gene Goldberg, John Gallagher, and Dorothy Goulbourne.
When the Tukanas cut off her head, the old woman collected her own blood in her hands and blew it towards the sun.
“My soul enters you, too!” she shouted.
Since then anyone who kills receives in his body, without wanting or knowing it, the soul of his victim.
Memory of Fire: Genesis
Why do we remember the past, and not the future?
—STEPHEN W. HAWKING
A Brief History of Time
One - Iron Lung
T ime is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backward in time and exist in two places at once.
It was my brother Stephen who told me that, when he wore his raveling maroon sweater to study in and spent a lot of time standing on his head so that the blood would run down into his brain and nourish it. I didn’t understand what he meant, but maybe he didn’t explain it very well. He was already moving away from the imprecision of words.
But I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.
“S tephen says time is not a line,” I say. Cordelia rolls her eyes, as I knew she would.
“So?” she says. This answer pleases both of us. It puts the nature of time in its place, and also Stephen, who calls us “the teenagers,” as if he himself is not one.
Cordelia and I are riding on the streetcar, going downtown, as we do on winter Saturdays. The streetcar is muggy with twice-breathed air and the smell of wool. Cordelia sits with nonchalance, nudging me with her elbow now and then, staring blankly at the other people with her gray-green eyes, opaque and glinting as metal. She can outstare anyone, and I am almost as good. We’re impervious, we scintillate, we are thirteen.
We wear long wool coats with tie belts, the collars turned up to look like those of movie stars, and rubber boots with the tops folded down and men’s work socks inside. In our pockets are stuffed the kerchiefs our mothers make us wear but that we take off as soon as we’re out of their sight. We scorn head coverings. Our mouths are tough, crayon-red, shiny as nails. We think we are friends. On the streetcars there are always old ladies, or we think of them as old. They’re of various kinds. Some are respectably dressed, in tailored Harris tweed coats and matching gloves and tidy no-nonsense hats with small brisk feathers jauntily at one side. Others are poorer and foreign-looking and have dark shawls wound over their heads and around their shoulders. Others are bulgy, dumpy, with clamped self-righteous mouths, their arms festooned with shopping bags; these we associate with sales, with bargain basements. Cordelia can tell cheap cloth at a glance. “Gabardine,” she says. “Ticky-tack.”
Then there are the ones who have not resigned themselves, who still try for an effect of glamour. There aren’t many of these, but they stand out. They wear scarlet outfits or purple ones, and dangly earrings, and hats that look like stage props. Their slips show at the bottoms of their skirts, slips of unusual, suggestive colors. Anything other than white is suggestive. They have hair dyed straw-blond or baby-blue, or, even more startling against their papery skins, a lusterless old-fur-coat black. Their lipstick mouths are too big around their mouths, their rouge blotchy, their eyes drawn screw-jiggy around their real eyes. These are the ones most likely to talk to themselves. There’s one who says “mutton, mutton,”
over and over again like a song, another who pokes at our legs with her umbrella and says “bare naked.”
This is the kind we like best. They have a certain gaiety to them, a power of invention, they don’t care what people think. They have escaped, though what it is they’ve escaped from isn’t clear to us. We think that their bizarre costumes, their verbal tics, are chosen, and that when the time comes we also will be free to choose.
“That’s what I’m going to be like,” says Cordelia. “Only I’m going to have a yappy Pekinese, and chase kids off my lawn. I’m going to have a shepherd’s crook.”
“I’m going to have a pet iguana,” I say, “and wear nothing but cerise.” It’s a word I have recently learned.
Now I think, what if they just couldn’t see what they looked like? Maybe it was as simple as that: eye problems. I’m having that trouble myself now: too close to the mirror and I’m a blur, too far back and I can’t see the details. Who knows what faces I’m making, what kind of modern art I’m drawing onto myself? Even when I’ve got the distance adjusted, I vary. I am transitional; some days I look like a worn-out thirty-five, others like a sprightly fifty. So much depends on the light, and the way you squint. I eat in pink restaurants, which are better for the skin. Yellow ones turn you yellow. I actually spend time thinking about this. Vanity is becoming a nuisance; I can see why women give it up, eventually. But I’m not ready for that yet.
Lately I’ve caught myself humming out loud, or walking along the street with my mouth slightly open, drooling a little. Only a little; but it may be the thin edge of the wedge, the crack in the wall that will open, later, onto what? What vistas of shining eccentricity, or madness?
There is no one I would ever tell this to, except Cordelia. But which Cordelia? The one I have conjured up, the one with the rolltop boots and the turned-up collar, or the one before, or the one after? There is never only one, of anyone.
If I were to meet Cordelia again, what would I tell her about myself? The truth, or whatever would make me look good?
Probably the latter. I still have that need.
I haven’t seen her for a long time. I wasn’t expecting to see her. But now that I’m back here I can hardly walk down a street without a glimpse of her, turning a corner, entering a door. It goes without saying that these fragments of her—a shoulder, beige, camel’s-hair, the side of a face, the back of a leg—belong to women who, seen whole, are not Cordelia.
I have no idea what she would look like now. Is she fat, have her breasts sagged, does she have little gray hairs at the corners of her mouth? Unlikely: she would pull them out. Does she wear glasses with fashionable frames, has she had her lids lifted, does she streak or tint? All of these things are possible: we’ve both reached that borderline age, that buffer zone in which it can still be believed such tricks will work if you avoid bright sunlight.
I think of Cordelia examining the growing pouches under her eyes, the skin, up close, loosened and crinkled like elbows. She sighs, pats in cream, which is the right kind. Cordelia would know the right kind. She takes stock of her hands, which are shrinking a little, warping a little, as mine are. Gnarling has set in, the withering of the mouth; the outlines of dewlaps are beginning to be visible, down toward the chin, in the dark glass of subway windows. Nobody else notices these things yet, unless they look closely; but Cordelia and I are in the habit of looking closely.
She drops the bath towel, which is green, a muted sea-green to match her eyes, looks over her shoulder, sees in the mirror the dog’s-neck folds of skin above the waist, the buttocks drooping like wattles, and, turning, the dried fern of hair. I think of her in a sweatsuit, sea-green as well, working out in some gym or other, sweating like a pig. I know what she would say about this, about all of this. How we giggled, with repugnance and delight, when we found the wax her older sisters used on their legs, congealed in a little pot, stuck full of bristles. The grotesqueries of the body were always of interest to her. I think of encountering her without warning. Perhaps in a worn coat and a knitted hat like a tea cosy, sitting on a curb, with two plastic bags filled with her only possessions, muttering to herself. Cordelia!
Don’t you recognize me? I say. And she does, but pretends not to. She gets up and shambles away on swollen feet, old socks poking through the holes in her rubber boots, glancing back over her shoulder. There’s some satisfaction in that, more in worse things. I watch from a window, or a balcony so I can see better, as some man chases Cordelia along the sidewalk below me, catches up with her, punches her in the ribs—I can’t handle the face—throws her down. But I can’t go any farther. Better to switch to an oxygen tent. Cordelia is unconscious. I have been summoned, too late, to her hospital bedside. There are flowers, sickly smelling, wilting in a vase, tubes going into her arms and nose, the sound of terminal breathing. I hold her hand. Her face is puffy, white, like an unbaked biscuit, with yellowish circles under the closed eyes. Her eyelids don’t flicker but there’s a faint twitching of her fingers, or do I imagine it? I sit there wondering whether to pull the tubes out of her arms, the plug out of the wall. No brain activity, the doctors say. Am I crying? And who would have summoned me?
Even better: an iron lung. I’ve never seen an iron lung, but the newspapers had pictures of children in iron lungs, back when people still got polio. These pictures—the iron lung a cylinder, a gigantic sausage roll of metal, with a head sticking out one end of it, always a girl’s head, the hair flowing across the pillow, the eyes large, nocturnal—fascinated me, more than stories about children who went out on thin ice and fell through and were drowned, or children who played on the railroad tracks and had their arms and legs cut off by trains. You could get polio without knowing how or where, end up in an iron lung without knowing why. Something you breathed in or ate, or picked up from the dirty money other people had touched. You never knew.
The iron lungs were used to frighten us, and as reasons why we couldn’t do things we wanted to. No public swimming pools, no crowds in summer. Do you want to spend the rest of your life in an iron lung? they would say. A stupid question; though for me such a life, with its inertia and pity, had its secret attractions.
Cordelia in an iron lung, then, being breathed, as an accordion is played. A mechanical wheezing sound comes from around her. She is fully conscious, but unable to move or speak. I come into the room, moving, speaking. Our eyes meet.
Cordelia must be living somewhere. She could be within a mile of me, she could be right on the next block. But finally I have no idea what I would do if I bumped into her by accident, on the subway for instance, sitting across from me, or waiting on the platform reading the ads. We would stand side by side, looking at a large red mouth stretching itself around a chocolate bar, and I would turn to her and say: Cordelia. It’s me, it’s Elaine. Would she turn, give a theatrical shriek? Would she ignore me?
Or would I ignore her, given the chance? Or would I go up to her wordlessly, throw my arms around her? Or take her by the shoulders, and shake and shake.
I’ve been walking for hours it seems, down the hill to the downtown, where the streetcars no longer run. It’s evening, one of those gray watercolor washes, like liquid dust, the city comes up with in fall. The weather at any rate is still familiar.
Now I’ve reached the place where we used to get off the streetcar, stepping into the curbside mounds of January slush, into the grating wind that cut up from the lake between the flat-roofed dowdy buildings that were for us the closest thing to urbanity. But this part of the city is no longer flat, dowdy, shabby-genteel. Tubular neon in cursive script decorates the restored brick façades, and there’s a lot of brass trim, a lot of real estate, a lot of money. Up ahead there are huge oblong towers, all of glass, lit up, like enormous gravestones of cold light. Frozen assets.
I don’t look much at the towers though, or the people passing me in their fashionable getups, imports, handcrafted leather, suede, whatever. Instead I look down at the sidewalk, like a tracker. I can feel my throat tightening, a pain along the jawline. I’ve started to chew my fingers again. There’s blood, a taste I remember. It tastes of orange Popsicles, penny gumballs, red licorice, gnawed hair, dirty ice.
Two – Silver Paper
I‘ m lying on the floor, on a futon, covered by a duvet. Futon, duvet: this is how far we’ve come. I wonder if Stephen ever figured out what futons and duvets were. Most likely not. Most likely if you’d said futon to him, he’d have looked at you as if he was deaf or you were brain-damaged. He did not exist in the futon dimension.
When there were no futons and no duvets, the price of an ice cream cone was five cents. Now it’s a dollar if you’re lucky, and not as big either. That’s the bottom-line difference between then and now: ninety-five cents.
This is the middle of my life. I think of it as a place, like the middle of a river, the middle of a bridge, halfway across, halfway over. I’m supposed to have accumulated things by now: possessions, responsibilities, achievements, experience and wisdom. I’m supposed to be a person of substance. But since coming back here I don’t feel weightier. I feel lighter, as if I’m shedding matter, losing molecules, calcium from my bones, cells from my blood; as if I’m shrinking, as if I’m filling with cold air, or gently falling snow.
With all this lightness I do not rise, I descend. Or rather I am dragged downward, into the layers of this place as into liquefied mud.
The fact is that I hate this city. I’ve hated it so long I can hardly remember feeling any other way about it. Once it was fashionable to say how dull it was. First prize a week in Toronto, second prize two weeks in Toronto, Toronto the Good, Toronto the Blue, where you couldn’t get wine on Sundays. Everyone who lived here said those things: provincial, self-satisfied, boring. If you said that, it showed you recognized these qualities but did not partake of them yourself.
Now you’re supposed to say how much it’s changed. World-class city is a phrase they use in magazines these days, a great deal too much. All those ethnic restaurants, and the theater and the boutiques. New York without the garbage and muggings, it’s supposed to be. People from Toronto used to go to Buffalo for the weekends, the men to watch girlie shows and drink after-hours beer, the women to shop; they’d come back jumped-up and pissed and wearing several layers of clothes to smuggle them through Customs. Now the weekend traffic is the other way around.
I’ve never believed either version, the dull, the world-class. Toronto was never dull, for me. Dull isn’t a word you’d use to describe such misery, and enchantment.
And I can’t believe it’s changed. Driving in from the airport yesterday in the taxi, past the flat neat factories and warehouses that were once flat neat farms, mile after mile of caution and utilitarianism, and then through the center of the city with the glitz and the European-style awnings and the paving stones, I could see it’s still the same. Underneath the flourish and ostentation is the old city, street after street of thick red brick houses, with their front porch pillars like the off-white stems of toadstools and their watchful, calculating windows. Malicious, grudging, vindictive, implacable. In my dreams of this city I am always lost.
Apart from all this, I do of course have a real life. I sometimes have trouble believing in it, because it doesn’t seem like the kind of life I could ever get away with, or deserve. This goes along with another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise. I live in a house, with window curtains and a lawn, in British Columbia, which is as far away from Toronto as I could get without drowning. The unreality of the landscape there encourages me: the greeting-card mountains, of the sunset-and-sloppy-message variety, the cottagy houses that look as if they were built by the Seven Dwarfs in the thirties, the giant slugs, so much larger than a slug needs to be. Even the rain is overdone, I can’t take it seriously. I suppose these things are as real, and as oppressive, to the people who grew up there as this place is to me. But on good days it still feels like a vacation, an evasion. On bad days I don’t notice it, or much else.
I have a husband, not my first, whose name is Ben. He is not any sort of an artist, for which I am thankful. He runs a travel agency, specializing in Mexico. Among his other sterling qualities are cheap tickets to the Yucatán. The travel agency is why he hasn’t come with me on this trip: the months before Christmas are a hectic time in the travel business.
I also have two daughters, by now grown up. Their names are Sarah and Anne, good sensible names. One of them is almost a doctor, the other an accountant. These are sensible choices. I am a believer in sensible choices, so different from many of my own. Also in sensible names for children, because look what happened to Cordelia.
Alongside my real life I have a career, which may not qualify as exactly real. I am a painter. I even put that on my passport, in a moment of bravado, since the other choice would have been housewife. It’s an unlikely thing for me to have become; on some days it still makes me cringe. Respectable people do not become painters: only overblown, pretentious, theatrical people. The word artist embarrasses me; I prefer painter, because it’s more like a valid job. An artist is a tawdry, lazy sort of thing to be, as most people in this country will tell you. If you say you are a painter, you will be looked at strangely. Unless you paint wildlife, or make a lot of money at it, of course. But I only make enough to generate envy, among other painters, not enough so I can tell everyone else to stuff it. Most of the time though I exult, and think I have had a narrow escape. My career is why I’m here, on this futon, under this duvet. I’m having a retrospective, my first. The name of the gallery is Sub-Versions, one of those puns that used to delight me before they became so fashionable. I ought to be pleased by this retrospective, but my feelings are mixed; I don’t like admitting I’m old enough and established enough to have such a thing, even at an alternative gallery run by a bunch of women. I find it improbable, and ominous: first the retrospective, then the morgue. But also I’m cheesed off because the Art Gallery of Ontario wouldn’t do it. Their bias is toward dead, foreign men. The duvet is in a studio that belongs to my first husband Jon. It interests me that he would have a duvet here, although his house is elsewhere. So far I’ve restrained myself from going through his medicine cabinet, in search of hairpins and female deodorants, as I once would have done. This is none of my business any longer, I can leave the hairpins to his iron-clad wife.
Staying here is possibly a silly thing to do, too retrospective. But we’ve always kept in touch because of Sarah, who is his daughter also, and after we got through the shouting and the broken glass we settled into being friends of a sort, by long distance, which is always easier than up close. When he heard about the retrospective, he offered. The price of a hotel in Toronto, he said, even a second-rate hotel, is becoming offensive. Sub-Versions would have put me up, but I didn’t mention that. I don’t like the neatness of hotels, the squeaky-clean bathtubs. I don’t like hearing my own voice echo in there, especially at night. I prefer the shedding and disorder and personal dirt of people like myself, people like Jon. Transients and nomads.
Jon’s studio is down on King Street, near the waterfront. King Street used to be one of those places you never went, a place of dingy warehouses and rumbling trucks and dubious alleyways. Now it’s come up in the world. Artists have infested it; in fact the first wave of artists has almost come and gone, and brass lettering and heating pipes painted fire-engine red and firms of lawyers are taking over. Jon’s studio, on the fifth and top floor of one of the warehouses, doesn’t have long to live in its present form. Track lighting is spreading over the ceilings, the lower floors are being stripped of their old linoleum, smelling of Pine Sol with an obscure base note of ancient throwup and pee, and the wide boards underneath are being sandblasted. I know all this because I walk up the five floors; they haven’t got around to an elevator yet.
Jon left me the key in an envelope under the mat, and a note saying Blessings, which is a measure of how much he’s softened, or mellowed. Blessings was not his former style. He’s temporarily in Los Angeles, doing a chain-saw murder, but he’ll be back before my opening.
I last saw him at Sarah’s college graduation four years ago. He flew out to the coast, luckily without the wife, who is not fond of me. Although we haven’t met, I know about her lack of fondness. During the proceedings, the ritual mumbo-jumbo and the tea and cookies afterward, we acted like responsible, grown-up parents. We took both the girls out to dinner and behaved ourselves. We even dressed the way we knew Sarah wanted us to: I had on an outfit, matching shoes and all, and Jon wore a suit and an actual tie. I told him he looked like an undertaker.
But the next day we snuck out to lunch, alone, and got plastered. That word, plastered, on the brink of obsolescence, indicates to me what sort of an event that was. It was a retrospective. And I still think of it as sneaking out, though of course Ben knew all about it. Though he would never go to lunch with his own first wife.
“You’ve always said it was such a disaster,” Ben said to me, puzzled.
“It was,” I said. “It was horrible.”
“Then why would you want to have lunch with him?”
“That’s hard to explain,” I said, though it may not be. What we share, Jon and I, may be a lot like a traffic accident, but we do share it. We are survivors, of each other. We have been shark to one another, but also lifeboat. That counts for something.
In the old days Jon did constructions. He made them out of bits of wood and leather he’d pick out of people’s trash, or else he’d smash things—violins, glassware—and glue the pieces into the position of the smash; shatter patterns, he called them. At one time he wrapped pieces of colored tape around tree trunks and took photographs of them, at another he made a replica of a mold-covered loaf of bread that breathed in and out with the aid of a small electric motor. The mold was made from the hair clippings of himself and friends. I think there’s even some of my hair on that loaf of bread; I caught him snitching some out of my hairbrush.
He does special effects for movies now, to support his artist habit. The studio is scattered with his half-finished doings. On the workbench where he keeps his paints, glues, knives, and pliers, there’s a hand and arm, done in plastic resin, arteries worming from the cut end, straps to strap it on. There are hollow casts of legs and feet standing around on the floor like elephant-foot umbrella stands; in one of them there’s an umbrella. Also there’s part of a face, with the skin blackened and withered, made to fit over the actor’s real face. A monster, warped by others, bent on revenge. Jon has told me he isn’t sure this hacked-up body-part stuff is the sort of thing he should be doing. It’s too violent, it doesn’t contribute to human goodness. He’s coming to believe in human goodness in his old age, which is certainly a change; I’ve even found some herbal tea in the cupboard. He claims he’d rather make friendly animals for children’s shows. But as he says, you have to eat, and there’s just more demand for cut-off limbs.
I wish he were here, or Ben, or any man I know. I’m losing the appetite for strangers. Once I would have focused on the excitement, the hazard; now it’s the mess, the bother. Getting your clothes off gracefully, always such an impossibility; thinking up what to say afterward, without setting the echoes going in your head. Worse, the encounter with another set of particularities: the toenails, the ear holes, the nosehairs. Perhaps at this age we return to the prudishness we had as children. I get up off the duvet, feeling as if I haven’t slept. I riffle through the herbal tea bags in the kitchenette, Lemon Mist, Morning Thunder, and bypass them in favor of some thick, jolting, poisonous coffee. I find myself standing in the middle of the main room, not knowing exactly how I got in here from the kitchenette. A little time jump, a little static on the screen, probably jet lag: up too late at night, drugged in the morning. Early Alzheimer’s.
I sit at the window, drinking my coffee, biting my fingers, looking down the five stories. From this angle the pedestrians appear squashed from above, like deformed children. All around are flat-roofed, boxy warehouse buildings, and beyond them the flat railroad lands where the trains used to shunt back and forth, once the only entertainment available here on Sundays. Beyond that is flat Lake Ontario, a zero at the beginning and a zero at the end, slate-gray and brimming with venoms. Even the rain from it is carcinogenic.
I wash in Jon’s tiny, greasy bathroom, resisting the medicine cabinet. The bathroom is smeared with fingerprints and painted dingy white, not the most flattering light. Jon wouldn’t feel like an artist without a certain amount of dinge around. I squint into the mirror, preparing my face: with my contact lenses in I’m too close to the mirror, without them I’m too far away. I’ve taken to doing these mirror things with one lens in my mouth, glassy and thin like the tag end of a lemon drop. I could choke on it by mistake, an undignified way to die. I should get bifocals. But then I’d look like an old biddy. I pull on my powder-blue sweatsuit, my disguise as a non-artist, and go down the four flights of stairs, trying to look brisk and purposeful. I could be a businesswoman out jogging, I could be a bank manager, on her day off. I head north, then east along Queen Street, which is another place we never used to go. It was rumored to be the haunt of grubby drunks, rubby-dubs we called them; they were said to drink rubbing alcohol and sleep in telephone booths and vomit on your shoes in the streetcar. But now it’s art galleries and bookshops, boutiques filled with black clothing and weird footgear, the saw-toothed edge of trend.
I decide I’ll go and have a look at the gallery, which I have never seen because all of this has been arranged by phone and mail. I don’t intend to go in, make myself known, not yet. I just want to look at it from the outside. I’ll walk past, glance casually, pretending to be a housewife, a tourist, someone window shopping. Galleries are frightening places, places of evaluation, of judgment. I have to work up to them. But before I reach the gallery I come to a wall of plywood, concealing a demolition. On it is spray-painted, in defiance of squeaky-clean Toronto: It’s Bacon or Me, Babe. And underneath: What Is This Bacon and Where Can I Get Some? Beside this there’s a poster. Or not a poster, more like a flier: a violent shade of purple, with green accents and black lettering. RISLEY IN RETROSPECT, it says; just the last name, like a boy. The name is mine and so is the face, more or less. It’s the photo I sent the gallery. Except that now I have a mustache.
Whoever drew this mustache knew what he was doing. Or she: nothing precludes that. It’s a curled, flowing mustache, like a cavalier’s, with a graceful goatee to match. It goes with my hair. I suppose I should be worried about this mustache. Is it just doodling, or is it political commentary, an act of aggression? Is it more like Kilroy Was Here or more like Fuck Off? I can remember drawing such mustaches myself, and the spite that went into them, the desire to ridicule, to deflate, and the feeling of power. It was defacing, it was taking away someone’s face. If I were younger I’d resent it. As it is, I study the mustache and think: That looks sort of good. The mustache is like a costume. I examine it from several angles, as if I’m considering buying one for myself. It casts a different light. I think about men and their facial hair, and the opportunities for disguise and concealment they have always at their disposal. I think about mustache-covered men, and about how naked they must feel with the thing shaved off. How diminished. A lot of people would look better in a mustache. Then, suddenly, I feel wonder. I have achieved, finally, a face that a mustache can be drawn on, a face that attracts mustaches. A public face, a face worth defacing. This is an accomplishment. I have made something of myself, something or other, after all.
I wonder if Cordelia will see this poster. I wonder if she’ll recognize me, despite the mustache. Maybe she’ll come to the opening. She’ll walk in through the door and I will turn, wearing black as a painter should, looking successful, holding a glass of only moderately bad wine. I won’t spill a drop.
U ntil we moved to Toronto I was happy.
Before that we didn’t really live anywhere; or we lived so many places it was hard to remember them. We spent a lot of the time driving, in our low-slung, boat-sized Studebaker, over back roads or along two-lane highways up north, curving past lake after lake, hill after hill, with the white lines going down the middle of the road and the telephone poles along the sides, tall ones and shorter ones, the wires looking as if they were moving up and down.
I sit by myself in the back of the car, among the suitcases and the cardboard boxes of food and the coats, and the gassy, dry-cleaning smell of the car upholstery. My brother Stephen sits in the front seat, beside the partly open window. He smells of peppermint LifeSavers; underneath that is his ordinary smell, of cedarwood lead pencils and wet sand. Sometimes he throws up into paper bags, or beside the road if my father can stop the car in time. He gets carsick and I do not, which is why he has to sit in the front. It’s his only weakness that I know of.
From my cramped vantage point in the back I have a good view of my family’s ears. My father’s, which stick out from under the brim of the old felt hat he wears to keep twigs and tree sap and caterpillars out of his hair, are large and soft-looking, with long lobes; they’re like the ears of gnomes, or those of the flesh-colored, doglike minor characters in Mickey Mouse comic books. My mother wears her hair pinned back at the sides with bobby pins, so her ears are visible from the back. They’re narrow, with fragile upper edges, like the handles of china cups, although she herself is not fragile. My brother’s ears are round, like dried apricots, or like the ears of the green-tinged, oval-headed aliens from outer space he draws with his colored pencils. Around and over his round ears and down the back of his neck his hair, dark blond and straight, grows in thick wisps. He resists haircuts. It’s difficult for me to whisper into my brother’s round ears when we’re in the car. In any case he can’t whisper back, because he has to look straight ahead at the horizon, or at the white lines of the road that washes toward us, wave after slowly undulating wave.
The roads are mostly empty, because it’s the war, though once in a while there’s a truck loaded with cut tree trunks or fresh lumber, trailing its perfume of sawdust. At lunchtime we stop by the roadside and spread a groundsheet among the white papery everlasting and the purple fireweed and eat the lunch our mother makes, bread and sardines or bread and cheese, or bread and molasses or bread and jam if we can’t get anything else. Meat and cheese are scarce, they are rationed. That means you have a ration book with colored stamps in it.
Our father makes a small fire to boil water in a billy tin for tea. After lunch we disappear into the bushes, one by one, with pieces of toilet paper in our pockets. Sometimes there are other pieces of toilet paper there already, melting among the bracken and dead leaves, but mostly there are not. I squat, listening behind me for bears, aster leaves rough on the tops of my legs, then bury the toilet paper under sticks and bark and dried bracken. Our father says you should make it look as if you haven’t been there at all. Our father walks into the forest, carrying his ax, a pack-sack, and a large wooden box with a leather shoulder strap. He looks up, from tree to tree to tree, considering. Then he spreads a tarpaulin out on the ground, underneath the chosen tree, wrapping it around the trunk. He opens the wooden box, which is filled with racks of small bottles. He hits the tree trunk with the back of his ax. The tree shakes; leaves and twigs and caterpillars patter down, bouncing off his gray felt hat, hitting the tarpaulin. Stephen and I crouch, picking up the caterpillars, which are blue-striped, and velvety and cool, like the muzzles of dogs. We put them into the collecting bottles filled with pale alcohol. We watch them twist and sink. My father looks at the harvest of caterpillars as if he’s grown them himself. He examines the chewed leaves. “A beautiful infestation,” he says. He’s joyful, he’s younger than I am now. The alcohol smell is on my fingers, cold and remote, piercing, like a steel pin going in. It smells like white enamel basins. When I look up at the stars in the nighttime, cold and white and sharp, I think they must smell like that.
When it gets to the end of the day we stop again and put up our tent, heavy canvas with wooden poles. Our sleeping bags are khaki and thick and lumpy, and always feel a little damp. Underneath them we put groundsheets, and inflatable mattresses that make you feel dizzy while you blow them up and fill your nose and mouth with the taste of stale rain boots or spare tires piled in a garage. We eat around the fire, which turns brighter as the shadows grow out from the trees like darker branches. We crawl into the tent and take our clothes off inside our sleeping bags, the flashlight making a circle on the canvas, a light ring enclosing a darker one, like a target. The tent smells of tar and kapok and brown paper with cheese grease on it, and crushed grass. In the mornings the weeds outside are sprinkled with dew. Sometimes we stay in motels, but only if it’s too late at night to find a place to set up the tent. The motels are always far from anything, set against a dark wall of forest, their lights glimmering in the uniform obscuring night like those of ships, or oases. They have gas pumps outside, human-sized, with round discs on top, lit up like pale moons or haloes minus the head. On each disc is a shell or a star, an orange maple leaf, a white rose. The motels and the gas pumps are often empty or closed: gas is rationed, so people don’t travel much unless they have to.
Or we stay in cabins belonging to other people or to the government, or we stay in abandoned logging camps, or we pitch two tents, one for sleeping and one for supplies. In the winters we stay in towns or cities up north, the Soo or North Bay or Sudbury, in apartments that are really the top floors of other people’s houses, so that we have to be careful about the noise of our shoes on the wooden floors. We have furniture which comes from storage. It’s always the same furniture but it always looks unfamiliar. In these places there are flush toilets, white and alarming, where things vanish in an instant, with a roar. When we first get to cities my brother and I go to the bathroom a lot, and drop things in as well, such as pieces of macaroni, to see them disappear. There are air-raid sirens, and then we pull the curtains and turn off the lights, though our mother says the war will never come here. The war filters in over the radio, remote and crackly, the voices from London fading through the static. Our parents are dubious as they listen, their mouths tighten: it could be that we are losing.
My brother does not think so. He thinks our side is the good side, and therefore it will win. He collects cigarette cards with pictures of airplanes on them, and knows the names of all the planes. My brother has a hammer and some wood, and his own jackknife. He whittles and hammers: he’s making a gun. He nails two pieces of wood at right angles, with another nail for the trigger. He has several of these wooden guns, and daggers and swords also, with blood coloured onto the blades with red pencils. Some of the blood is orange, from when he ran out of red. He sings: Coming in on a wing and a prayer,
Coming in on a wing and a prayer,
Though there’s one motor gone
We will still carry on,
Coming in on a wing and a prayer.
He sings this cheerfully, but I think it’s a sad song, because although I’ve seen the pictures of the airplanes on the cigarette cards I don’t know how they fly. I think it’s like birds, and a bird with one wing can’t fly. This is what my father says in the winters, before dinner, lifting his glass when there are other men there at the table: “You can’t fly on one wing.” So in fact the prayer in the song is useless. Stephen gives me a gun and a knife and we play war. This is his favorite game. While our parents are putting up the tent or making the fire or cooking, we sneak around behind the trees and bushes, aiming through the leaves. I am the infantry, which means I have to do what he says. He waves me forward, motions me back, tells me to keep my head down so the enemy won’t blow it off.
“You’re dead,” he says.
“No I’m not.”
“Yes you are. They got you. Lie down.”
There is no arguing with him, since he can see the enemy and I can’t. I have to lie down on the swampy ground, propped against a stump to avoid getting too wet, until it’s time for me to be alive again. Sometimes, instead of war, we hunt through the forest, turning over logs and rocks to see what’s underneath. There are ants, grubs and beetles, frogs and toads, garter snakes, even salamanders if we’re lucky. We don’t do anything with the things we find. We know they will die if we put them into bottles and leave them by accident in the sun in the back window of the car, as we have done before. So we merely look at them, watching the ants hiding their pill-shaped eggs in panic, the snakes pouring themselves into darkness. Then we put the logs back where they were, unless we need some of these things for fishing.
Once in a while we fight. I don’t win these fights: Stephen is bigger and more ruthless than I am, and I want to play with him more than he wants to play with me. We fight in whispers or well out of the way, because if we’re caught we will both be punished. For this reason we don’t tell on each other. We know from experience that the satisfactions of betrayal are scarcely worth it. Because they’re secret, these fights have an extra attraction. It’s the attraction of dirty words we aren’t supposed to say, words like bum; the attraction of conspiracy, of collusion. We step on each other’s feet, pinch each other’s arms, careful not to give away the pain, loyal even in outrage. How long did we live this way, like nomads on the far edges of the war?
Today we’ve driven a long time, we’re late setting up our tent. We’re near the road, beside a raggedy anonymous lake. The trees around the shore are doubled in the water, the leaves of the poplars are yellowing towards fall. The sun sets in a long, chilly, lingering sunset, flamingo pink, then salmon, then the improbable vibrant red of Mercurochrome. The pink light rests on the surface, trembling, then fades and is gone. It’s a clear night, moonless, filled with antiseptic stars. There is the Milky Way clear as can be, which predicts bad weather.
We pay no attention to any of this, because Stephen is teaching me to see in the dark, as commandos do. You never know when you might need to do this, he says. You can’t use a flashlight; you have to stay still, in the darkness, waiting until your eyes become accustomed to no light. Then the shapes of things begin to emerge, grayish and glimmering and insubstantial, as if they’re condensing from the air. Stephen tells me to move my feet slowly, balancing on one foot at a time, careful not to step on twigs. He tells me to breathe quietly. “If they hear you they’ll get you,” he whispers.
He crouches beside me, outlined against the lake, a blacker patch of water. I catch the glint of an eye, then he’s gone. This is a trick of his.
I know he’s sneaking up on the fire, on my parents, who are flickering, shadowy, their faces indistinct. I’m alone with my heartbeat and my too-loud breathing. But he’s right: now I can see in the dark. Such are my pictures of the dead.
I have my eighth birthday in a motel. My present is a Brownie box camera, black and oblong, with a handle on top and a round hole at the back to look through.
The first picture taken with it is of me. I’m leaning against the doorframe of the motel cabin. The door behind me is white and closed, with the metal number on it showing: 9. I’m wearing pants, baggy at the knees, and a jacket too short in the sleeves. Under the jacket, I know though you can’t see it, is a hand-me-down brown and yellow striped jersey of my brother’s. Many of my clothes were once his. My skin is ultrawhite from overexposure of the film, my head is tilted to one side, my mittenless wrists dangle. I look like old photos of immigrants. I look as if I’ve been put there in front of the door and told to stand still.
What was I like, what did I want? It’s hard to remember. Did I want a camera for my birthday?
Probably not, although I was glad to have it.
I want some more cards from the Nabisco Shredded Wheat boxes, the gray cards with pictures on them that you color, cut out, and fold to make the houses in a town. Also I want some pipe cleaners. We have a book called Rainy Day Hobbies that shows how to make a walkie-talkie out of two cans and a piece of string, or how to make a boat that will go forward if you drop lubricating oil into a hole in it; also now to make a doll’s chest of drawers out of miniature matchboxes, and how to make various animals—a dog, a sheep, a camel—out of pipe cleaners. The boat and the chest of drawers don’t appeal to me, only the pipe cleaners. I’ve never seen a pipe cleaner.
I want some silver paper out of cigarette packages. I have several pieces already, but I want more. My parents don’t smoke cigarettes, so I have to collect this paper where I can find it, on the edges of gas stations, in the weedy grass near motels. I am in the habit of scavenging along the ground this way. When I find some I clean it off and flatten it out and store it between the pages of my school reader. I don’t know what I’ll do with it when I have enough, but it will be something amazing. I want a balloon. Balloons are coming back, now that the war is over. When I was sick with the mumps, once in the winter, my mother found one at the bottom of her steamer trunk. She must have tucked it away there before the war, suspecting perhaps that there would not be any more for a while. She blew it up for me. It was blue, translucent, round, like a private moon. The rubber was old and rotting and the balloon burst almost at once, and I was heartbroken. But I want another balloon, one that will not break. I want some friends, friends who will be girls. Girl friends. I know that these exist, having read about them in books, but I’ve never had any girl friends because I’ve never been in one place long enough. Much of the time it’s raw and overcast, the low metallic sky of late autumn; or else it rains and we have to stay inside the motel. The motel is the kind we’re used to: a row of cottages, flimsily built, strung together with Christmas tree lights, yellow or blue or green. These are called “housekeeping cottages,”
which means they have some kind of a stove in them, a pot or two and a tea kettle, and a table covered with oilcloth. The floor of our housekeeping cottage is linoleum, with a faded pattern of floral squares. The towels are skimpy and thin, the sheets have worn places in the middles, rubbed there by other people’s bodies. There’s a framed print of the woods in winter and another of ducks in flight. Some motels have outhouses, but this one has a real though smelly flush toilet, and a bathtub. We’ve been living in this motel for weeks, which is unusual: we never stay in motels for more than a night at a time. We eat cans of Habitant pea soup, heated up on the two-burner stove in a dented pot, and slices of bread spread with molasses, and hunks of cheese. There’s more cheese, now that the war is over. We wear our outdoor clothes indoors, and socks at night, because these cottages with their one-layer walls are supposed to be for summer tourists. The hot water is never more than lukewarm, and our mother heats water in the tea kettle and pours it into the tub for our baths. “Just to get the crust off,”
In the mornings we wrap blankets around our shoulders while we eat our breakfast. Sometimes we can see our own breath, even inside the cottage. All of this is irregular, and slightly festive. It isn’t just that we aren’t going to school. We’ve never gone to school for more than three or four months at a time anyway. I was in school the last time eight months ago and have only dim and temporary ideas of what it was like. In the mornings we do our schoolwork, in our workbooks. Our mother tells us which pages to do. Then we read our school readers. Mine is about two children who live in a white house with ruffled curtains, a front lawn, and a picket fence. The father goes to work, the mother wears a dress and an apron, and the children play ball on the lawn with their dog and cat. Nothing in these stories is anything like my life. There are no tents, no highways, no peeing in the bushes, no lakes, no motels. There is no war. The children are always clean, and the little girl, whose name is Jane, wears pretty dresses and patent-leather shoes with straps.
These books have an exotic appeal for me. When Stephen and I draw with our colored pencils, he draws wars, ordinary wars and wars in space. His red and yellow and orange are worn to stubs, from the explosions, and his gold and silver are used up too, on the shining metal carapaces of the tanks and spaceships and on the helmets and the complicated guns. But I draw girls. I draw them in old-fashioned clothing, with long skirts, pinafores and puffed sleeves, or in dresses like Jane’s, with big hairbows on their heads. This is the elegant, delicate picture I have in my mind, about other little girls. I don’t think about what I might say to them if I actually met some. I haven’t got that far. In the evenings we’re supposed to do the dishes—“Rattle them up,” our mother calls it. We squabble in whispers and monosyllables about whose turn it is to wash: drying with a clammy tea towel isn’t as good as washing, which warms up your hands. We float the plates and glasses in the dish pan and dive-bomb them with the spoons and knives, whispering “Bombs away.” We try to aim as close as possible without actually hitting them. They aren’t our dishes. This gets on our mother’s nerves. If it gets on her nerves enough, she will do the dishes herself, which is intended to be a rebuke. At night we lie in the saggy pull-out bed, head to toe, which is supposed to make us go to sleep sooner, and kick each other silently under the covers; or else we try to see how far we can get our sock feet up each other’s pajama legs. Once in a while the headlights of a passing car show through the window, moving first along one wall, then along the next wall, then fading away. There’s an engine sound, then the sizzle of tires on the wet road. Then silence.
I don’t know who took that picture of me. It must have been my brother, because my mother is inside the cabin, behind the white door, wearing gray slacks and a dark-blue plaid shirt, packing our food into cardboard boxes and our clothes into suitcases. She has a system for packing; she talks to herself while she’s doing it, reminding herself of details, and she likes us out of the way. Right after the picture it begins to snow, small dry flakes falling singly out of the hard northern November sky. There’s a kind of hush and lassitude until that first snow, with the light waning and the last moose-maple leaves dangling from the branches like seaweed. We felt sleepy until it began to snow. Now we feel exhilarated.
We’re running around outside the motel, wearing nothing but our worn-out summer shoes, with our bare hands outstretched to the falling snowflakes, our heads thrown back, our mouths open, eating snow. If it were thick on the ground we would roll in it, like dogs in dirt. It fills us with the same kind of rapture. But our mother looks out the window and sees us, and the snow, and makes us come inside and dry our feet off with the skimpy towels. We have no winter boots that fit. While we’re inside, the snow turns to sleet. Our father is pacing the floor, jingling his keys in his pocket. He always wants things to happen sooner than they do, and now he wants to leave right away, but my mother says he’ll have to hold his horses. We go outside and help him scrape the crust of ice off the car windows and then we carry boxes, and finally we squeeze into the car ourselves and drive south. I know it’s south because of the direction of the sunlight, which is coming weakly through the clouds now, touching the icy trees with glitter, glaring off the ice patches at the sides of the road, making it hard to see.
Our parents say we’re going to our new house. This time the house will be really ours, not rented. It’s in a city called Toronto. This name means nothing to me. I think about the house in my school reader, white, with a picket fence and a lawn, and window curtains. I want to see what my bedroom will be like. By the time we arrive at the house it’s late afternoon. At first I think there must be some mistake; but no, this is the house all right, because my father is already opening the door with a key. The house is hardly on a street at all, more like a field. It’s square-shaped, a bungalow, built of yellow brick and surrounded by raw mud. On one side of it is an enormous hole in the ground, with large mud piles heaped around it. The road in front is muddy too, unpaved, potholed. There are some concrete blocks sunk in the mud for stepping-stones so we can get to the door.
Inside, things are even more daunting. There are doors and windows, true, and walls, and the furnace works. There’s a picture window in the living room, though the view is of a large expanse of rippling mud. The toilet actually flushes, though it has a yellowish-brown ring around the inside of the bowl and several floating cigarette butts; and reddish, warmish water comes from the hot water tap when I turn it on. But the floors are not polished wood or even linoleum. They’re made of wide, rough boards with cracks in between, gray with plaster dust and scattered with white speckles, like bird droppings. Only a few of the rooms have light fixtures; the others have wires dangling out of the middle of the ceiling. There are no counters in the kitchen, only the bare sink; there’s no stove. Nothing is painted. Dust is on everything: the windows, the window ledges, the fixtures, the floor. There are a lot of dead flies around.
“We all have to pitch in,” says our mother, which means that we are not to complain. We will have to do the best we can, she says. We will have to finish the house ourselves, because the man who was supposed to do it has gone bankrupt. Flown the coop, is how she puts it. Our father is not so cheerful. He paces around the house, peering and prodding at it, muttering to himself and making small whistling noises. “Son of a gun, son of a gun,” is what he says.
From somewhere in the depths of the car our mother unearths a primus stove, which she sets up on the kitchen floor, since there is no table. She begins to heat up some pea soup. My brother goes outside; I know he’s climbing up the mountain of dirt next door, or assessing the possibilities of the large hole in the ground, but I don’t have the heart to join him.
I wash my hands in the reddish water in the bathroom. There’s a crack in the sink, which at this moment seems a disaster, worse than any of the other flaws and absences. I look at my face in the dust-smeared mirror. There’s no shade on the light, just a bare bulb overhead, which makes my face look pallid and ill, with circles under the eyes. I rub my eyes; I know it would be wrong to be seen crying. Despite its rawness, the house feels too hot, maybe because I’m still wearing my outside clothes. I feel trapped. I want to be back in the motel, back on the road, in my old rootless life of impermanence and safety. The first nights we sleep on the floor, in our sleeping bags, on top of our air mattresses. Then some army surplus cots appear, canvas stretched across a metal frame smaller at the base than at the top, so that if you roll over in the night you tip off onto the floor and the cot falls on top of you. Night after night I fall out and wake up lying on the rough dusty floor wondering where I am, and my brother is not there to snicker at me or order me to shut up, because I’m in a room by myself. At first I found the thought of my own room exciting—an empty space to be arranged as I wanted, without regard to Stephen and his strewn clothes and wooden guns—but now I’m lonely. I’ve never been in a room by myself at night before.
Each day new things appear in the house while we’re at school: a stove, a refrigerator, a card table and four chairs, so that we can eat in the ordinary way, sitting at a table, instead of cross-legged on a groundsheet spread in front of the fireplace. The fireplace actually works; this is one part of the house that has been finished. In it we burn scrap pieces of wood left over from the construction. In his spare time our father hammers away at the interior of the house. Floor coverings spread across the floors: narrow hardwood boards in the living room, asphalt tiles in our bedrooms, advancing row by row. The house begins to look more like a house. But this takes a lot longer than I would like: we are a far cry from picket fences and white curtains, here in our lagoon of postwar mud.
W e’re used to seeing our father in windbreakers, battered gray felt hats, flannel shirts with the cuffs tightly buttoned to keep the blackflies from crawling up his arms, heavy pants tucked into the tops of woolen work socks. Except for the felt hats, what our mother wore wasn’t all that different. Now, however, our father wears jackets and ties and white shirts, and a tweed overcoat and a scarf. He has galoshes that buckle on over his shoes instead of leather boots waterproofed with bacon grease. Our mother’s legs have appeared, sheathed in nylons with seams up the backs. She draws on a lipstick mouth when she goes out. She has a coat with a gray fur collar, and a hat with a feather in it that makes her nose look too long. Every time she puts on this hat, she looks into the mirror and says, “I look like the Witch of Endor.”
Our father has changed his job: this explains things. Instead of being a forest-insect field researcher, he is now a university professor. The smelly jars and collecting bottles that once were everywhere have diminished in number. Instead, scattered around the house, there are stacks of drawings made by his students with colored pencils. All of them are of insects. There are grasshoppers, spruce budworms, forest tent caterpillars, wood-boring beetles, each one the size of a page, their parts neatly labeled: mandibles, palps, antennae, thorax, abdomen. Some of them are in section, which means they’re cut open so you can see what’s inside them: tunnels, branches, bulbs and delicate filaments. I like this kind the best.
My father sits in an armchair in the evenings with a board across the arms of the chair and the drawings on the board, going through them with a red pencil. Sometimes he laughs to himself while doing this, or shakes his head, or makes ticking noises through his teeth. “Idiot,” he says, or “blockhead.” I stand behind his chair, watching the drawings, and he points out that this person has put the mouth at the wrong end, that person has made no provision for a heart, yet another one cannot tell a male from a female. This is not how I judge the drawings: I find them better or worse depending on the colors. On Saturdays we get into the car with him and drive down to the place where he works. It is actually the Zoology Building, but we don’t call it that. It is just the building. The building is enormous. Whenever we’re there it’s almost empty, because it’s Saturday; this makes it seem even larger. It’s of dark-brown weathered brick, and gives the impression of having turrets, although it has none. Ivy grows on it, leafless now in winter, covering it with skeletal veining. Inside it there are long hallways with hardwood floors, stained and worn from generations of students in slushy winter boots, but still kept polished. There are staircases, also of wood, which creak when we climb them, and banisters we aren’t supposed to slide down, and iron radiators that make banging noises and are either stone cold or blazing hot.
On the second floor there are corridors leading into other corridors, lined with shelves that contain jars full of dead lizards or pickled ox eyeballs. In one room there are glass cages with snakes in them, snakes bigger than any we’ve ever seen before. One is a tame boa constrictor, and if the man in charge of it is there he gets it out and winds it around his arm, so we can see how it crushes things to death in order to eat them. We’re allowed to stroke it. Its skin is cool and dry. Other cages have rattlesnakes, and the man shows us how he milks the venom out of their fangs. For this he wears a leather glove. The fangs are curved and hollow, the venom dripping from them is yellow.
In the same room is a cement pool filled with thick-looking greenish water in which large turtles sit and blink or clamber ponderously up onto the rocks provided for them, hissing if we get too close. This room is hotter and steamier than the others because the snakes and turtles need it to be; it smells musky. In yet another room is a cage full of gigantic African cockroaches, white-colored and so poisonous that their keeper has to gas them to make them unconscious every time he opens the cage to feed them or get one out.
Down in the cellar there are shelves and shelves of white rats and black mice, special ones that aren’t wild. They eat food pellets from hoppers in their cages and drink from bottles fitted with eyedroppers. They have chewed-newspaper nests full of pink hairless baby mice. They run over and under one another and sleep in heaps, and sniff one another with their quivering noses. The mouse feeder tells us that if you put a strange mouse into one of their cages, one with the wrong, alien scent, they will bite it to death. The cellar smells strongly of mouse droppings, a smell which wafts upward through the whole building, getting fainter as you go up, mingling with the smell of the green Dustbane used to clean the floors, and with the other smells, the floor polish and furniture wax and formaldehyde and snakes. We don’t find any of the things in the building repulsive. The general arrangements, though not the details, are familiar to us, though we’ve never seen so many mice in one place before and are awed by their numbers and stench. We would like to get the turtles out of their pool and play with them, but since they’re snapping turtles and bad-tempered and can take your fingers off, we know enough not to. My brother wants an ox eyeball out of one of the jars: it’s the sort of thing other boys find impressive. Some of the upstairs rooms are labs. The labs have vast ceilings and blackboards across the front. They contain rows and rows of large dark desks, more like tables than desks, with high stools to sit on. Each desk has two lamps with green glass shades, and two microscopes, old microscopes, with heavy thin tubing and brass fittings.
We’ve seen microscopes before, but not at such length; we can spend a lot of time with them before getting tired of them. Sometimes we’re given slides to look at: butterfly wings, cross-sections of worms, planaria stained with pink and purple dyes so you can see the different parts. At other times we put our fingers under the lenses and examine our fingernails, the pale parts curved like hills against their dark pink sky, the skin around them grainy and creased like the edge of a desert. Or we pull hairs out of our heads to look at them, hard and shiny like the bristles that grow out of the chitonous skins of insects, with the hair roots at the end like tiny onion bulbs.
We like scabs. We pick them off—there isn’t room for a whole arm or leg under the microscope—and turn the magnification up as high as it will go. The scabs look like rocks, bumpy, with a sheen like silica; or else like some kind of fungus. If we can get a scab off a finger we put the finger under and watch the place where the blood oozes out, bright red, in a round button, like a berry. Afterward we lick off the blood. We look at earwax, or snot, or dirt from our toes, checking first to see that there’s no one around: we know without asking that such things would not be approved of. Our curiosity is supposed to have limits, though these have never been defined exactly.
This is what we do on Saturday mornings, while our father attends to things in his office and our mother goes grocery shopping. She says it keeps us out of her hair.
The building overlooks University Avenue, which has lawns and some copper-green statues of men on horses. Right across the road is the Ontario Parliament Building, which is also old and dingy. I think it must be another building like the building, filled with long creaky corridors and shelves of pickled lizards and ox eyes.
It’s from the building that we watch our first Santa Claus Parade. We’ve never seen a parade before. You can listen to this parade on the radio, but if you want to actually see it you have to bundle up in your winter clothes and stand on the sidewalk, stomping your feet and rubbing your hands to keep warm. Some people climb up onto the horse statues to get a better view. We don’t have to do this, as we can sit on the window ledge of one of the main labs in the building, separated from the weather by a pane of dusty glass, with blasts of heat from the iron radiator going up our legs. From there we watch as people dressed like snowflakes, like elves, like rabbits, like sugar plum fairies, march past us, strangely truncated because we’re looking down on them. There are bands of bagpipers in kilts, and things like big cakes, with people on them waving, that slide past on wheels. It’s begun to drizzle. Everyone down there looks cold.
Santa Claus is at the end, smaller than expected. His voice and his loudspeaker jingle bells are muted by the dusty glass; he rocks back and forth behind his mechanical reindeer, looking soggy, blowing kisses to the crowd.
I know he isn’t the real Santa Claus, just someone dressed up like him. Still, my idea of Santa Claus has altered, has acquired a new dimension. After this it becomes hard for me to think of him without thinking also of the snakes and the turtles and the pickled eyes, and the lizards floating in their yellow jars, and of the vast, echoing, spicy, ancient and forlorn but also comforting smell of old wood, furniture polish, formaldehyde and distant mice.
Three – Empire Bloomers
T here are days when I can hardly make it out of bed. I find it an effort to speak. I measure progress in steps, the next one and the next one, as far as the bathroom. These steps are major accomplishments. I focus on taking the cap off the toothpaste, getting the brush up to my mouth. I have difficulty lifting my arm to do even that. I feel I am without worth, that nothing I can do is of any value, least of all to myself. What do you have to say for yourself? Cordelia used to ask. Nothing, I would say. It was a word! I came to connect with myself, as if I was nothing, as if there was nothing there at all. Last night I felt the approach of nothing. Not too close but on its way, like a wingbeat, like the cooling of the wind, the slight initial tug of an undertow. I wanted to talk to Ben. I phoned the house but he was out, the machine was on. It was my own voice I heard, cheerful and in control. Hi there. Ben and I can’t come to the phone at the moment, but leave a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. Then a beep.
A disembodied voice, an angel voice, wafting through the air. If I died this minute it would go on like that, placid and helpful, like an electronic afterlife. Hearing it made me want to cry.
“Big hugs,” I said into the empty space. I closed my eyes, thought about the mountains on the coast. That’s home, I told myself. That’s where you really live. Among all that stagey scenery, too beautiful, like a cardboard movie backdrop. It’s not real, it’s not drab, not flat, not grubby enough. They’re working on it though. Go a few miles here, a few miles there, out of sight of the picture windows, and you come to the land of stumps.
Vancouver is the suicide capital of the country. You keep going west until you run out. You come to the edge. Then you fall off.
I crawl out from under the duvet. I am a busy person, in theory. There are things to be done, although none of them are things I want to do. I check through the refrigerator in the kitchenette, dig out an egg, boil it, dump it into a teacup, mush it up. I don’t even glance at the herbal teas, I go straight for the real, vile coffee. Jitter in a cup. It cheers me up to know I’ll soon be so tense. I pace among the severed arms and hollow feet, drinking blackness. I like this studio, I could work here. There’s the right amount of makeshift and dinginess for me. Things that are falling apart encourage me: whatever else, I’m in better shape than they are.
Today we hang. An unfortunate term.
I tuck myself into my clothes, handling my arms and legs as if they’re someone else’s, someone not very big or not very well. It’s the powder-blue sweatsuit again today; I didn’t bring very much clothing with me. I don’t like to check things, I like to jam it all under the airplane seat. At the back of my mind is the idea that if something goes wrong, up there in the air, I’ll be able to grab my bag out from under the seat and jump out the window, gracefully, without leaving any of my possessions behind. I head out into the open, walk quickly along the street, mouth slightly open, keeping time in my head. Keep happy with the nappy Gang. I used to jog but it’s bad for the knees. Too much beta carotene turns you orange, too much calcium gives you kidney stones. Health kills. The old emptiness of Toronto is gone. Now it’s chock-full: Toronto‘s bloating itself to death, that much is clear. The traffic is astonishing, there’s honking and barging, people drive right out to the middle of the intersections and sit there when the light changes. I’m glad I’m on foot. Every building I pass down here among the warehouses seems to cry Renovate me! Renovate me! The first time I saw the word Reno in the real estate section I thought it meant the gambling resort. Language is leaving me behind. I hit the corner of King and Spadina, walk north. This used to be where you came to get wholesale clothing, and it still is; but the old Jewish delis are disappearing, replaced by Chinese emporia, wicker furniture, cutwork tablecloths, bamboo wind chimes. Some of the street signs are subtitled in Chinese, multiculturalism on the march, others have Fashion District underneath the names. Everything is a district now. There never used to be districts.
It comes over me that I need a new dress for the opening. I’ve brought one with me, of course; I’ve already pressed it with my travel iron, clearing a corner of Jon’s workbench for the ironing board, folding a towel across it. This dress is black, because black is the best thing for such occasions: a simple, sober black dress, like those of the women who play cellos in symphony orchestras. It doesn’t do to outdress the clients.
But the thought of this dress is depressing to me now. Black attracts lint, and I’ve forgotten my clothes brush. I remember the Scotch tape ads from the forties: mummify your hand in inside-out Scotch tape, defuzz your clothing. I think of myself standing there in the gallery, surrounded by one-of-a-kind boutique wear and real pearls, widow-colored and linty where the Scotch tape has missed. There are other colors, pink for instance: pink is supposed to weaken your enemies, make them go soft on you, which must be why it’s used for baby girls. It’s a wonder the military hasn’t got onto this. Pale-pink helmets, with rosettes, a whole battalion, onto the beachhead, over the top in pink. Now is the time for me to make the switch, I could use a little pink right now.
I cruise the cut-rate windows. Each one is like a shrine, lit up from within, its goddess on display, hand on hip or leg thrust out, the faces beige and inaccessible. Party dresses have come back, bows and flamenco ruffles, straplessness and crinolines, puffed sleeves like cloth marshmallows: everything I thought was left behind forever. And miniskirts too, as bad as ever, but I draw the line at those. I didn’t like them the last time around either: too much underpants. I can’t wear the ruffled things, I’d look like a cabbage, and not the strapless ones either, not with my collarbone high and dry, my hen’s-foot elbows sticking out. What I need is something vertical, maybe a little draped.
A SALE sign lures me in. The name of this store is The Sleek Boutique, though it’s not really a boutique: it’s crammed full of ends-or-line, low on overhead. It’s crowded, which pleases me. Salesladies intimidate me, I don’t like to be caught shopping. I riffle furtively through the SALE rack, bypassing sequins, angora roses, gold thread, grubby white leather, looking for something. What I’d like is to be transformed, which becomes less possible. Disguise is easier when you’re young. I take three things to the fitting room: salmon with dollar-sized white polka dots, electric blue with satin inserts, and, to be on the safe side, something in black that will do if all else fails. The salmon is what I’d really like, but can I handle the dots? I slip it on, zipper and hook it, turn this way and that, in front of the mirror which is as usual badly lit. If I ran a store like this I’d paint all the cubicles pink and put some money into the mirrors: whatever else women want to see, it’s not themselves; not in their worst light anyway.
I crane my neck, trying to get the rear view. Maybe with different shoes, or different earrings? The price tag dangles, pointing to my rump. There are the polka dots, rolling across a broad expanse. It’s amazing how much bigger you always look from the back. Maybe because there are fewer distracting features to break up the wide monotony of hill and plane.
As I turn back, I see my purse, lying on the floor where I put it, and after all these years I should know better. It’s open. The cubicle wall only comes down to a foot above the floor, and back through the gap a noiseless arm is retreating, the hand clutching my wallet. The fingernails are painted Day-Glo green. I bring my shoeless foot down hard on the wrist. There’s a shriek, some loud plural giggling: youth on the fast track, schoolgirls on the prowl. My wallet is dropped, the hand shoots back like a tentacle. I jerk open the door. Damn you, Cordelia! I think.
But Cordelia is long gone.
T he school we are sent to is some distance away, past a cemetery, across a ravine, along a wide curving street lined with older houses. The name of it is Queen Mary Public School. In the mornings we walk across the freezing mud in our new winter overshoes, carrying our lunches in paper bags, and down through the remains of an orchard to the nearest paved road, where we wait for the school bus to come lurching toward us, up the hill and over the potholes. I wear my new snowsuit, my skirt wrapped around my legs and stuffed down into the bulgy legs of the snowpants, which whisk together as I walk. You can’t wear pants to school, you have to wear skirts. I’m not used to this, or to sitting still at a desk. We eat our lunches in the chilly dimly lit cellar of the schoolhouse, where we sit in supervised rows on long scarred wooden benches under a festoon of heating pipes. Most of the children go home for lunch, it’s only the school bus ones that have to stay. We’re issued small bottles of milk which we drink through straws stuck in through a hole in the cardboard bottle tops. These are my first drinking straws, and they amaze me.
The school building itself is old and tall, made of liver-colored brick, with high ceilings, long ominous wood-floored hallways, and radiators that are either on full blast or not at all, so that we’re either shivering with cold or too hot. The windows are high and thin and many-paned, and decorated with cutouts made of construction paper; right now there are snowflakes, for winter. There’s a front door which is never used by children. At the back are two grandiose entranceways with carvings around them and ornate insets above the doors, inscribed in curvy, solemn lettering: GIRLS and BOYS. When the teacher in the yard rings her brass handbell we have to line up in twos by classrooms, girls in one line, boys in another, and file into our separate doors. The girls hold hands; the boys don’t. If you go in the wrong door you get the strap, or so everyone says.
I am very curious about the BOYS door. How is going in through a door different if you’re a boy?
What’s in there that merits the strap, just for seeing it? My brother says there’s nothing special about the stairs inside, they’re plain ordinary stairs. The boys don’t have a separate classroom, they’re in with us. They go in the BOYS door and end up in the same place we do. I can see the point of the boys’
washroom, because they pee differently, and also the boys’ yard, because of all the kicking and punching that goes on among them. But the door baffles me. I would like to have a look inside. Just as there are separate doors for boys and girls, there are also separate parts of the schoolyard. At the front, outside the teachers’ entrance, is a dirt field covered with cinders, the boys’ playing field. At the side of the school facing away from the street is a hill, with wooden steps going up it and eroded runnels worn down the side, and a few stunted evergreens on top. By custom this is reserved for the girls, and the older ones stand around up there in groups of three or four, their heads bent inward, whispering, although boys sometimes make charges up the hill, yelling and waving their arms. The cement-paved area outside the BOYS and GIRLS is common territory, since the boys have to cross it in order to go in their door.
Lining up is the only time I see my brother at school. At home we’ve rigged up a walkie-talkie with two tin cans and a piece of string, which runs between our two bedroom windows and doesn’t work very well. We push messages under each other’s doors, written in the cryptic language of the aliens, which is filled with x’s and z’s and must be decoded. We nudge and kick each other under the table, keeping our faces straight above the tablecloth; sometimes we tie our shoelaces together, for signaling. These are my main communications with my brother now, these raspy tin can words, sentences without vowels, the Morse of feet.
But in the daytime I lose sight of him as soon as we go out the door. He’s up ahead, throwing snowballs; and on the bus he’s at the back, in a noisy whirlpool of older boys. After school, after he’s gone through the fights that are required of any new boy at any school, he’s off helping to wage war on the boys from the Catholic school nearby. It’s called Our Lady of Perpetual Help, but the boys from our school have renamed it Our Lady of Perpetual Hell. It’s said that the boys from this Catholic school are very tough and that they conceal rocks inside their snowballs.
I know better than to speak to my brother during these times, or to call his or any boy’s attention to me. Boys get teased for having younger sisters, or sisters of any kind, or mothers; it’s like having new clothes. When he gets anything new my brother dirties it as soon as possible, to avoid having it noticed; and if he has to go anywhere with me and my mother, he walks ahead of us or crosses to the other side of the street. If he’s teased about me, he will have to fight some more. For me to contact him, or even to call him by name, would be disloyal. I understand these things, and do my best. So I am left to the girls, real girls at last, in the flesh. But I’m not used to girls, or familiar with their customs. I feel awkward around them, I don’t know what to say. I know the unspoken rules of boys, but with girls I sense that I am always on the verge of some unforeseen, calamitous blunder. A girl called Carol Campbell makes friends with me. In a way she has to, because she’s the only school bus girl in my grade. The children who come on the school bus, who eat their lunches in the cellar instead of going home, are considered a little foreign, and are in danger of finding themselves without a partner when the bell rings and it’s time to line up. So Carol sits beside me on the school bus, holds my hand in line, whispers to me, eats her lunch beside me on the wooden bench in the cellar. Carol lives in one of the older houses on the other side of the abandoned orchard, closer to the school, a yellow brick house with two stories and green-painted shutters framing the windows. She’s a stubby girl with a frequent laugh. She tells me her hair is honey-blond, that her haircut is called a pageboy, that she has to go to the hairdresser’s every two months to get it done. I haven’t known there are such things as pageboys and hairdressers. My mother doesn’t go to the hairdresser’s. She wears her hair long, pinned up at the sides, like the women in wartime posters, and my own hair has never been cut. Carol and her younger sister have matching outfits for Sundays: fitted brown tweed coats with velvet collars, round brown velvet hats with an elastic under the chin to hold them on. They have brown gloves and little brown purses. She tells me all this. They are Anglicans. Carol asks me what church I go to, and I say I don’t know. In fact we never go to church.
After school Carol and I walk home, not the way the school bus goes in the morning but a different way, along back streets and across a decaying wooden footbridge over the ravine. We’ve been told not to do this alone, and not to go down into the ravine by ourselves. There might be men down there, is what Carol says. These are not ordinary men but the other kind, the shadowy, nameless kind who do things to you. She smiles and whispers when saying men, as if they are a special, thrilling joke. We cross the bridge lightly, avoiding the places where the boards have rotted through, on the lookout for men. Carol invites me to her house after school, where she shows me her cupboard with all her clothes hanging in it. She has a lot of dresses and skirts; she even has a dressing gown, with fuzzy slippers to match. I have never seen so many girls’ clothes in one place.
She lets me look at her living room from the doorway, although we aren’t allowed to go into it. She herself can’t go in except to practice the piano. The living room has a sofa and two chairs and matching drapes, all of a flowered rose and beige material Carol says is chintz. She pronounces this word with awe, as if it’s the name of something sacred, and I repeat it silently to myself: chintz. It sounds like the name of a kind of crayfish, or of one of the aliens on my brother’s distant planet. Carol tells me that her piano teacher hits her fingers with a ruler if she gets a note wrong, and that her mother spanks her with the back of a hairbrush or else a slipper. When she’s really in for it she has to wait until her father comes home and whacks her with his belt, right on the bare bum. All of these things are secrets. She says her mother sings on a radio program, under a different name, and we do overhear her mother practicing scales in the living room, in a loud quavery voice. She says her father takes some of his teeth out at night and puts them into a glass of water beside his bed. She shows me the glass, although the teeth aren’t in it. There seems to be nothing she won’t tell.
She tells me which boys at school are in love with her, making me promise not to tell. She asks me which ones are in love with me. I’ve never thought about this before, but I can see that some sort of an answer is expected. I say I’m not sure.
Carol comes to my house and takes it all in—the unpainted walls, the wires dangling from the ceilings, the unfinished floors, the army cots—with incredulous glee. “This is where you sleep? ” she says. “This is where you eat? These are your clothes? ” Most of my clothes, which are not many in number, are pants and jersey tops. I have two dresses, one for summer and one for winter, and a tunic and a wool skirt, for school. I begin to suspect that more may be required.
Carol tells everyone at school that our family sleeps on the floor. She gives the impression that we do this on purpose, because we’re from outside the city; that it’s a belief of ours. She’s disappointed when our real beds arrive from storage, four-legged and with mattresses, like everybody else’s. She puts it around that I don’t know what church I go to, and that we eat off a card table. She doesn’t repeat these items with scorn, but as exotic specialties. I am, after all, her lining-up partner, and she wants me to be marveled at. More accurate: she wants herself to be marveled at, for revealing such wonders. It’s as if she’s reporting on the antics of some primitive tribe: true, but incredible.
O n Saturday we take Carol Campbell to the building. When we walk into it she says, wrinkling up her nose, “Is this where your father works? ” We show her the snakes and the turtles; she makes a noise that sounds like “Ew,” and says she wouldn’t want to touch them. I’m surprised by this; I’ve been discouraged from having such feelings for so long that I no longer have them. Neither does Stephen. There’s not much we won’t touch, given the chance.
I think Carol Campbell is a sissy. At the same time I find myself being a little proud of her delicacy. My brother looks at her in an odd way: with contempt, true, and if I myself said such a thing he would make fun of me. But there’s an undertone, like an invisible nod, as if something he wants to suspect has come true after all.
By rights he should ignore her after this, but he tries her out on the jars of lizards and ox eyeballs. “Ew,”
she says. “What if they put one down your back? ” My brother says how would she like some for dinner? He makes chewing and slurping noises.
“Ew,” says Carol, screwing up her face and wriggling all over. I can’t pretend to be shocked and disgusted too: my brother wouldn’t be convinced. Neither can I join in the game of making up revolting foods, such as toadburgers and leech chewing gum, although if we were alone or with other boys I would do it without a second thought. So I say nothing.
After we get back from the building I go to Carol’s house again. She asks me if I want to see her mother’s new twin set. I don’t know what this is, but it sounds intriguing, so I say yes. She takes me stealthily into her mother’s bedroom, saying that she’ll really get it if we’re caught, and shows me the twin set, folded on a shelf. The twin set is just two sweaters, both the same color, one with buttons down the front, the other without. I’ve already seen Mrs. Campbell wearing a different twin set, a beige one, her breasts pronging out, the buttoned sweater draped over her shoulders like a cape. So this is all twin sets are. I’m disappointed, because I was expecting something to do with twins. Carol’s mother and father don’t sleep in one big bed, the way mine do. Instead they sleep in two little beds, exactly alike, with matching pink chenille bedspreads and matching night tables. These beds are called twin beds, which makes more sense to me than the twin set. Still, it’s strange to think of Mr. and Mrs. Campbell lying in them at night, with different heads—his with a mustache, hers without—but nevertheless twinlike, identical, under the sheets and blankets. It’s the matching bedspreads, the night tables, the lamps, the bureaus, the doubleness of everything in their room, that gives me this impression. My own parents’ room is less symmetrical, and also less neat.
Carol says her mother wears rubber gloves while washing the dishes. She shows me the rubber gloves and a spray thing attached to the water tap. She turns on the tap and sprays the inside of the sink, and part of the floor by accident, until Mrs. Campbell comes in, wearing her beige twin set and frowning, and says hadn’t we better go upstairs to play. Possibly she isn’t frowning. She has a mouth that turns slightly down even when she’s smiling, so it’s hard to tell whether she’s pleased or not. Her hair is the same color as Carol’s, but done in a cold wave all over her head. It’s Carol who points out that this is a cold wave. A cold wave has nothing to do with water. It’s like doll hair, very tidy and arranged, as if sewn into place.
Carol is more and more gratified the more bewildered I am. “You didn’t know what a cold wave is?”
she says, delighted. She’s eager to explain things to me, name them, display them. She shows me around her house as if it’s a museum, as if she personally has collected everything in it. Standing in the downstairs hall, where there is a coat tree— “You’ve never seen a coat tree? ”—she says I am her best friend. Carol has another best friend, who is sometimes her best friend and sometimes not. Her name is Grace Smeath. Carol points her out to me, on the bus, the same way she’s pointed out the twin set and the coat tree: as an object to be admired.
Grace Smeath is a year older and in the next grade up. At school she plays with the other girls in her class. But after school and on Saturdays she plays with Carol. There are no girls in her class on our side of the ravine.
Grace lives in a two-story shoebox-shaped red brick house with a front porch that has two thick round white pillars holding it up. She’s taller than Carol, with dark thick coarse hair done into two braids. Her skin is extremely pale, like a body under a bathing suit, but covered with freckles. She wears glasses. Usually she wears a gray skirt with two straps over the shoulders, and a red sweater pebbled with little balls of wool. Her clothes smell faintly of the Smeaths’ house, a mixture of scouring powder and cooked turnips and slightly rancid laundry, and the earth under porches. I think she is beautiful. On Saturdays I no longer go to the building. Instead I play with Carol and Grace. Because it’s winter, we play mostly inside. Playing with girls is different and at first I feel strange as I do it, self-conscious, as if I’m only doing an imitation of a girl. But I soon get more used to it. The things we play are mostly Grace’s ideas, because if we try to play anything she doesn’t like she says she has a headache and goes home, or else tells us to go home. She never raises her voice, gets angry, or cries; she is quietly reproachful, as if her headache is our fault. Because we want to play with her more than she wants to play with us, she gets her way in everything.
We color in Grace’s movie star coloring books, which show the movie stars in different outfits, doing different things: walking their dogs, going sailing in sailor suits, swirling around in evening dresses at parties. Grace’s favorite movie star is Esther Williams. I have no favorite movie star—I’ve never been to a movie—but I say mine is Veronica Lake, because I like the name. The Veronica Lake book is paper doll cutouts, with Veronica Lake in her bathing-suit and dozens of outfits you can stick onto her with tabs that fold around her neck. Grace won’t let us cut out these outfits, although we can put them on and take them off once she’s done it, but we’re allowed to work away at her coloring books as long as we stay inside the lines. She likes to get these books all colored in. She tells us what colors to use, on which parts. I know what my brother would do—green skin for Esther, with beetle antennae, and hairy legs for Veronica, eight of them—but I refrain from doing it. Anyway I like the clothes. We play school. Grace has a couple of chairs and a wooden table in her cellar, and a small blackboard and chalk. These are set up underneath the indoors clothesline where the Smeath underwear is hung up to dry when it rains or snows. The cellar isn’t a finished cellar: the floor is cement, the pillars holding up the house are brick, the water pipes and wires are showing, and the air smells of coal dust because the coal bin is right beside the blackboard.
Grace is always the teacher, Carol and I the students. We have to do spelling tests and sums in arithmetic; it’s like real school, but worse, because we never get to draw pictures. We can’t pretend to be bad, because Grace doesn’t like disorder.
Or we sit on the floor in Grace’s room with piles of old Eaton’s Catalogues. I’ve seen lots of Eaton’s Catalogues before: up north they’re hung in outhouses for use as toilet paper. Eaton’s Catalogues remind me of the stench of such outhouses, the buzzing of the flies down the hole underneath, the box of lime and the wooden paddle for dumping the lime down, onto the piles of old and recent droppings, of all shapes and colors of brown. But here we treat these catalogues with reverence. We cut the small colored figures out of them and paste them into scrapbooks. Then we cut out other things—cookware, furniture—and paste them around the figures. The figures themselves are always women. We call them
“my lady.” “My lady’s going to have this refrigerator,” we say. “My lady’s getting this rug.” “This is my lady’s umbrella.”
Grace and Carol look at each other’s scrapbook pages and say, “Oh, yours is so good. Mine’s no good. Mine’s awful. ” They say this every time we play the scrapbook game. Their voices are wheedling and false; I can tell they don’t mean it, each one thinks her own lady on her own page is good. But it’s the thing you have to say, so I begin to say it too.
I find this game tiring—it’s the weight, the accumulation of all these objects, these possessions that would have to be taken care of, packed, stuffed into cars, unpacked. I know a lot about moving house. But Carol and Grace have never moved anywhere. Their ladies live in a single house each and have always lived there. They can add more and more, stuff the pages of their scrapbooks with dining room suites, beds, stacks of towels, one set of dishes after another, and think nothing of it. I begin to want things I’ve never wanted before: braids, a dressing gown, a purse of my own. Something is unfolding, being revealed to me. I see that there’s a whole world of girls and their doings that has been unknown to me, and that I can be part of it without making any effort at all. I don’t have to keep up with anyone, run as fast, aim as well, make loud explosive noises, decode messages, die on cue. I don’t have to think about whether I’ve done these things well, as well as a boy. All I have to do is sit on the floor and cut frying pans out of the Eaton’s Catalogue with embroidery scissors, and say I’ve done it badly. Partly this is a relief.
F or Christmas, Carol gives me some Friendship’s Garden bath salts and Grace gives me a coloring book of Virginia Mayo. I open their presents before anyone else’s.
I also get a photo album, to go with my camera. The pages and covers are black, tied together with something that looks like a big black shoelace; there’s a package of black triangles with glue on them to stick the photos in with. So far I have taken only one roll of film with my camera. I think about what each picture will look like as I press the button. I don’t want to waste any. When the pictures come back from being developed, the negatives come too. I hold them up to the light: everything that’s white in the real picture is black in the negative. Snow for instance is black, and people’s eyeballs and teeth. I stick my photos into the album with the black triangles. Some of the pictures are of my brother, making threatening gestures with snowballs. Some are of Carol, some of Grace. There’s only that one picture of me, standing in front of the motel door with 9 on it, long ago, a month ago. Already that child seems much younger, poorer, farther away, a shrunken, ignorant version of myself. Another thing I get for Christmas is a red plastic purse, oval in shape, with a gold-colored clasp and a handle at the top end. It’s soft and pliable inside the house, but hardens outside in the cold, so that things rattle in it. I keep my allowance in it, five cents a week.
By this time we have a living room floor, hardwood, waxed by my mother down on her knees, polished with a long-handled weighted brush that she pushes back and forth, making a sound like waves. The living room has been painted, the fixtures installed, the baseboards added on. There are even curtains; drapes, they’re called. The public, visible parts of the house have been finished first. Our bedrooms remain in a rawer state. The windows there do not yet have drapes. Lying in bed at night, I can look out of my window at the snow falling, illuminated by the light from my brother’s bedroom window beside mine.
It’s the darkest time of the year. Even in the daytime it seems dark; and at night, when the lights are on, this darkness pervades everything, like a fog. Outside there are only a few streetlights, and they’re far apart and not very bright. The lamps in people’s houses cast a yellowish light, not cold and greenish but a buttery dim yellow with a tinge of brown. The colors of things in houses have darkness mixed into them: maroon, mushroom beige, a muted green, a dusty rose. These colors look a little dirty, like the squares in a paint box when you forget to rinse the brush.
We have a maroon chesterfield which has come out of storage, with an oriental-style maroon and purple rug in front of it. We have a tri-light floor lamp. The air in the evening lamplight is coagulated, like a custard thickening; heavier sediments of light collect in the corners of the living room. The drapes are kept closed at night, folds and folds of cloth drawn against the winter, hoarding the dim heavy light, keeping it in.
In this light I spread the evening paper out on the polished hardwood floor and rest on my knees and elbows, reading the comics. In the comics there are people with round holes for eyes, others who can hypnotize you instantly, others with secret identities, others who can stretch their faces into any shape at all. Around me is the scent of newsprint and floor wax, the bureau drawer smell of my itchy stockings mingled with that of grimy knees, the scratchy hot smell of wool plaid and the cat box aroma of cotton underpants. Behind me the radio plays square dance music from the Maritimes, Don Messer and His Islanders, in preparation for the six o’clock news. The radio is of dark varnished wood with a single green eye that moves along the dial as you turn the knob. Between the stations this eye makes eerie noises from outer space. Radio waves, says Stephen.
Often, now, Grace Smeath asks me over to her house after school without asking Carol. She tells Carol there’s a reason why she isn’t invited: it’s because of her mother. Her mother is tired, so Grace can only have one best friend over that day.
Grace’s mother has a bad heart. Grace doesn’t treat this as a secret, as Carol would. She says it unemotionally, politely, as if requesting you to wipe your feet on the mat; but also smugly, as if she has something, some privilege or moral superiority that the two of us don’t share. It’s the attitude she takes toward the rubber plant that stands on the landing halfway up her stairs. This is the only plant in Grace’s house, and we aren’t allowed to touch it. It’s very old and has to be wiped off leaf by leaf with milk. Mrs. Smeath’s bad heart is like that. It’s because of this heart that we have to tiptoe, walk quietly, stifle our laughter, do what Grace says. Bad hearts have their uses; even I can see that. Every afternoon Mrs. Smeath has to take a rest. She does this, not in her bedroom, but on the chesterfield in the living room, stretched out with her shoes off and a knitted afghan covering her. That is how she is always to be found when we go there to play after school. We come in through the side door, up the steps to the kitchen, trying to be as quiet as possible, and into the dining room as far as the double French doors, where we peer in through the glass panes, trying to see whether her eyes are open or closed. She’s never asleep. But there’s always the possibility—put into our heads by Grace, in that same factual way—that on any given day she may be dead.
Mrs. Smeath is not like Mrs. Campbell. For instance, she has no twin sets, and views them with contempt. I know this because once, when Carol was bragging about her mother’s twin sets, Mrs. Smeath said, “Is that so,” not as a question but as a way of making Carol shut up. She doesn’t wear lipstick or face powder, even when she goes out. She has big bones, square teeth with little gaps between them so that you can see each tooth distinctly, skin that looks rubbed raw as if scrubbed with a potato brush. Her face is rounded and bland, with that white skin of Grace’s, though without the freckles. She wears glasses like Grace too, but hers have steel rims instead of brown ones. Her hair is parted down the middle and graying at the temples, braided and wound over her head into a flat hair crown crisscrossed with hairpins.
She wears print housedresses, not only in the mornings but most of the time. Over the dresses she wears bibbed aprons that sag at the bosom and make it look as if she doesn’t have two breasts but only one, a single breast that goes all the way across her front and continues down until it joins her waist. She wears lisle stockings with seams, which make her legs look stuffed and sewn up the backs. She wears brown Oxfords. Sometimes, instead of the stockings, she has thin cotton socks, above which her legs rise white and sparsely haired, like a woman’s mustache. She has a mustache too, though not very much of one, just a sprinkling of hairs around the corners of the mouth. She smiles a lot, with her lips closed over her large teeth; but, like Grace, she does not laugh.
She has big hands, knuckly and red from the wash. There’s a lot of wash, because Grace has two younger sisters who get her skirts and blouses and also her underpants passed down to them. I’m used to getting my brother’s jerseys, but not his underpants. It’s these underpants, thin and gray with use, that hang dripping on the line over our heads as we sit in Grace’s cellar pretending to be schoolchildren. Before Valentine’s Day we have to cut out hearts of red construction paper at school and decorate them with pieces of paper doily to stick on the tall thin windows. While I am cutting mine I think about Mrs. Smeath’s bad heart. What exactly is wrong with it? I picture it hidden, underneath her woolen afghan and the billow of her apron bib, pumping in the thick fleshy darkness of the inside of her body: something taboo, intimate. It would be red, but with a reddish-black patch on it, like rot in an apple or a bruise. It hurts when I think about it. A little sharp wince of pain goes through me, as it did when I watched my brother cut his finger once on a piece of glass. But the bad heart is also compelling. It’s a curiosity, a deformity. A horrible treasure.
Day after day I press my nose against the glass of the French doors, trying to see if Mrs. Smeath is still alive. This is how I will see her forever: lying unmoving, like something in a museum, with her head on the antimacassar pinned to the arm of the chesterfield, a bed pillow under her neck, the rubber plant on the landing visible behind her, turning her head to look at us, her scrubbed face, without her glasses, white and strangely luminous in the dim space, like a phosphorescent mushroom. She is ten years younger than I am now. Why do I hate her so much? Why do I care, in any way, what went on in her head?
T he snow erodes, leaving the potholes in the roads near our house filled with muddy water. Thin bubbles of ice form across these puddles overnight; we shatter them with the heels of our boots. Icicles crash down from the eaves of roofs, and we pick them up and lick them like Popsicles. We wear our mittens dangling. On the lawns, as we walk home from school, we can see damp pieces of paper under the hedges, old dog turds, crocuses poking up through the grainy, soot-colored snow. The gutters run with brownish water; the wooden bridge over the ravine is slippery and soft and has regained its smell of rot. Our house looks like something left over from the war: all around it spreads rubble, devastation. My parents stand in their backyard, hands on their hips, looking out over the expanse of raw mud, planning their garden. Already clumps of couch grass are beginning to thrust up. Couch grass can grow in anything, my father says. He also says that the contractor, the same one that flew the coop, took the dense clay from where our cellar went in and spread it around the house, over what should have been the topsoil. “An idiot as well as a crook,” says my father.
My brother watches the water level in the giant hole next door, waiting for the hole to dry up so he can use it for a bunker. He would like to roof it over, with sticks and old planks, but he knows this isn’t possible because the hole is too big and also he wouldn’t be allowed. Instead he plans to dig a tunnel down there, into the side of the hole, and to get up and down to it by a rope ladder. He has no rope ladder, but he says he’ll make one, if he can get some rope.
He and the other boys run around in the mud; large extra feet of clay stick to the soles of their boots, leaving tracks like monsters. They crouch behind the trees in the old orchard, sniping at one another, shouting:
“I am not!”
At other times they crowd into my brother’s room, lying on their stomachs on his bed or on the floor, reading his huge piles of comic books. I sometimes do this too, wallowing among the pages of colored paper, surrounded by the fuggy scent of boys. Boys don’t smell the same as girls. They have a pungent, leathery, underneath smell, like old rope, like damp dogs. We keep the door closed because my mother doesn’t approve of comics. The reading of comics is done in reverential silence, with now and then a few monosyllables of trade.
Comic books are what my brother is collecting now. He’s always collected something. Once it was milk bottle tops, from dozens of dairies; he carried sheafs of them around in his pockets, held together with rubber bands, and stood them up against walls and threw other milk bottle tops at them to win more. Then it was pop bottle tops, then cigarette cards, then sightings of license plates from different provinces and states. There is no way of winning comic books. Instead you trade them, one good one for three or four of lesser value.
At school we make Easter eggs out of construction paper, pink and purple and blue, and stick them onto the windows. After that it’s tulips, and soon there are real tulips. It seems to be a rule that the paper things always appear before the real ones.
Grace produces a long skipping rope, and she and Carol teach me how to turn it. As we turn, we chant, in monotonous minor-key voices:
Salome was a dancer, she did the hoochie kootch;
And when she did the hoochie kootch, she didn’t wear very mooch.
Grace puts one hand on her head, the other on her hip, and wiggles her bum. She does this with perfect decorum; she’s wearing her pleated skirt with the straps over the shoulders. I know Salome is supposed to be more like the movie stars in our paper doll books. I think of gauzy skirts, high heels with stars on the toes, hats covered with fruit and feathers, lifted eyebrows, pencil-thin; gaiety and excess. But Grace in her pleats and woolen straps can wipe out all that.
Our other game is ball. We play it against the side wall of Carol’s house. We throw our rubber balls up against the wall and catch them as they come down, clapping and twirling in time to the chant: Ordinary, moving, laughing, talking, one hand, the other hand, one foot, the other foot, clap front, clap back, back and front, front and back, tweedle, twydle, curtsy, salute, and roundabout. For roundabout you throw the ball and twirl all the way around before catching it. This is the hardest thing, harder even than the left hand.
The sun lasts longer and longer and goes down golden-red. The willow trees drop yellow catkins over the bridge; the maple keys fall twirling to the sidewalks and we split the sticky seed part and pinch the keys onto our noses. The air is warm, humid, like invisible mist. We wear cotton dresses to school, and cardigans, which we take off walking home. The old trees in the orchard are in flower, white and pink; we climb up into them, breathing in their hand lotion smells, or we sit in the grass making chains of dandelions. We unbraid Grace’s hair, which falls down her back in coarse brown ripples, and wind the chains around her head like a crown. “You’re a princess,” says Carol, stroking the hair. I take a picture of Grace and stick it into my photo album. There she sits, smiling primly, festooned with blossoms. The field across from Carol’s house is sprouting new houses, and in the evenings groups of children, boys and girls alike, clamber about inside them, in the fresh wood smell of shavings, walking through walls that don’t yet exist, climbing ladders where there will soon be stairs. This is forbidden. Carol won’t climb to the higher floors because she’s afraid. Grace won’t climb either, but not because of fear: she doesn’t want anybody, any boy, to see her underpants. No girl can wear slacks to school, but Grace never wears them at any time. So the two of them stay on the ground floor while I climb, up and along the beams with no ceiling covering them, up again to the attic. I sit on the top floor where there is no floor, among the rafters in this house of air, basking in the red-gold sunset, looking down. I don’t think about falling. I am not yet afraid of heights.
One day someone appears in the schoolyard with a bag of marbles, and the next day everyone has them. The boys desert the boys’ playground and throng into the common playground in front of the BOYS and GIRLS doors; they need to come to this side of the playground, because marbles have to be played on a smooth surface and the boys’ yard is all cinders.
For marbles you’re either the person setting up the target or the person shooting. To shoot you kneel down, sight, and roll your marble at the target marble like a bowling ball. If you hit it you keep it, and your own marble too. If you miss, you lose your marble. If you’re setting up, you sit on the cement with your legs spread open and put a marble on a crack in front of you. It can be an ordinary marble, but these don’t get many shooters, unless you offer two for one. Usually the targets are more valuable: cat’s eyes, clear glass with a bloom of colored petals in the center, red or yellow or green or blue; puries, flawless like colored water or sapphires or rubies; waterbabies, with undersea filaments of color suspended in them; metal bowlies; aggies, like marbles only bigger. These exotics are passed from winner to winner. It’s cheating to buy them; they have to be won.
Those with target marbles call out the names of their wares: purie, purie, bowlie, bowlie, the two-syllable words drawn out into a singsong, the voice descending, the way you call dogs, or children when they’re lost. These cries are mournful, although they aren’t meant to be. I sit that way myself, the cold marbles rolling in between my legs, gath ering in my outspread skirt, calling out cat’s eye, cat’s eye, in a regretful tone, feeling nothing but avarice and a pleasurable terror. The cat’s eyes are my favorites. If I win a new one I wait until I’m by myself, then take it out and examine it, turning it over and over in the light. The cat’s eyes really are like eyes, but not the eyes of cats. They’re the eyes of something that isn’t known but exists anyway; like the green eye of the radio; like the eyes of aliens from a distant planet. My favorite one is blue. I put it into my red plastic purse to keep it safe. I risk my other cat’s eyes to be shot at, but not this one. I don’t collect many marbles because I’m not a very good shot. My brother is deadly. He takes five common marbles to school with him in a blue Crown Royal Whisky bag and comes back with the bag and his pockets bulging. He keeps his winnings in screw-top Crown preserving jars, donated by my mother, which he lines up on his desk. He never talks about his skill though. He just lines up the jars. One Saturday afternoon he puts all his best marbles—his puries, his waterbabies and cat’s eyes, his gems and wonders—into a single jar. He takes it down into the ravine somewhere, in under the wooden bridge, and buries it. Then he makes an elaborate treasure map of where it’s buried, puts it in another jar, and buries that one too. He tells me he’s done these things but he doesn’t say why, or where the jars are buried.
T he raw house and its lawn of mud and the mountain of earth beside it recede behind us; I watch them out of the back window of the car, from where I sit jammed in among the boxes of food, the sleeping bags and raincoats. I’m wearing a blue-striped jersey of my brother’s, a worn pair of corduroy pants. Grace and Carol stand under the apple trees, in their skirts, waving; disappearing. They still have to go to school; I don’t. I envy them. Already the tarry, rubbery travel smell is wrapping itself around me, but I don’t welcome it. I’m being wrenched away from my new life, the life of girls. I settle back into the familiar perspective, the backs of heads, the ears, and past them the white line of the highway. We drive up through the meadowy farmlands, with their silos and elms and their smell of cut hay. The broad-leafed trees become smaller, there are more pines, the air cools, the sky turns an icier blue: we’re heading away from spring. We hit the first ridges of granite, the first lakes; there’s snow in the shadows. I sit forward, leaning my arms on the back of the front seat. I feel like a dog, ears pricked and sniffing.
The north smells different from the city: clearer, thinner. You can see farther. A sawmill, a hill of sawdust, the teepee shape of a sawdust burner; the smokestacks of the copper smelters, the rocks around them bare of trees, burnt-looking, the heaps of blackened slag: I’ve forgotten about these things all winter, but here they are again, and when I see them I remember them, I know them, I greet them as if they are home.
Men stand on corners, outside general stores, outside small banks, outside beer parlors with gray asphalt shingles on the walls. They have their hands in their windbreaker pockets. Some have dark, Indian-looking faces, others are merely tanned. They walk differently from men in the south, slower, more considering; they say less and their words are farther apart. My father jingles his keys and the change in his pockets while he talks with them. They talk about water levels, the dryness of the forest, how the fish are biting. “Chewing the fat,” he calls it. He comes back to the car with a brown paper bag of groceries and packs it in behind my feet.
My brother and I stand at the end of a ramshackle dock beside a long blue craggy lake. It’s evening, with a melon-colored sunset, loons calling in the distance, the drawn-out rising note that sounds like wolves. We’re fishing. There are mosquitoes, but I’m used to them, I hardly bother to slap them. The fishing goes on without commentary: a cast, the plop of the lure, the sound of reeling in. We watch the lure to see if anything is following it. If there’s a fish, we’ll do our best to net it, step on it to hold it down, whack it over the head, stick a knife in back of its eyes. I do the stepping, my brother does the whacking, the sticking. Despite his silence he is poised, alert, the corners of his mouth tensed. I wonder if my eyes are gleaming like his, like some animal’s, in the pink dusk.
We’re living in an abandoned logging camp. We sleep on our air mattresses, in our sleeping bags, in the wooden bunks where the loggers used to sleep. Already the logging camp has a feeling of great age about it, although it’s only been empty for two years. Some of the loggers have left inscriptions, their names, their initials, intertwined hearts, short dirty words and crude pictures of women, carved or penciled in the wood of the two-by-fours of the walls. I find an old tin of maple syrup, the lid rusted shut, but when Stephen and I get it open the syrup is moldy. I think of this syrup tin as an ancient artifact, like something dug up out of a tomb.
We prowl around among the trees, looking for bones, for hummocks in the earth that could mark diggings, the outlines of buildings, turning over logs and rocks to see what’s underneath them. We would like to discover a lost civilization. We find a beetle, many small yellow and white roots, a toad. Nothing human.
Our father has shed his city clothing, turned back into himself. He has on his old jacket again, his baggy pants, his squashed felt hat with the fishing flies stuck into it. He tromps through the woods in his heavy lace-up bacon-greased workboots, with his ax in its leather sheath, us in his wake. There’s an outbreak of forest tent caterpillars, the biggest in years: this is what fills him with glee, makes his eyes of a gnome shine in his head like blue-gray buttons. The caterpillars are everywhere in the woods, striped and bristly. They dangle from the branches on threads of silk, forming a hanging curtain you have to brush out of the way; they river along the ground like a rug come to life, they cross roads, turning to greasy mush under the tires of the logging trucks. The trees around are denuded, as if they’ve been burnt; webbing sheathes their trunks.
“Remember this,” our father says. “This is a classic infestation. You won’t see an infestation like this again for a long time.” It’s the way I’ve heard people talk about forest fires, or the war: respect and wonderment mixed in with the sense of catastrophe.
My brother stands still and lets the caterpillars wash up over his feet, down on the other side of him, like a wave. “When you were a baby I caught you trying to eat those,” says our mother. “You had a whole handful, you were squashing them around. You were just about to pop them into your mouth when I caught you.”
“In some respects they’re like one animal,” our father says. He sits at the table made of planks left over from the loggers, eating fried Spam and potatoes. All during this meal he talks about the caterpillars: their numbers, their ingenuity, the various methods of defeating them. It’s wrong to spray them with DDT and other insecticides, he says. That merely poisons the birds which are their natural enemies, whereas they themselves, being insects and therefore resourceful, more resourceful than humans in fact, will merely develop a resistance to the sprays, so all you get is dead birds and more caterpillars later on. He’s working on some thing else: a growth hormone that will throw their systems out of whack and make them pupate before they’re supposed to. Premature aging. But in the end, if he were a betting man, he says, he’d put his money on the insects. The insects are older than people, they have more experience at surviving, and there are a lot more of them than there are of us. Anyway, we’ll probably blow ourselves sky-high before the end of the century, given the atom bomb and the way things are going. The future belongs to the insects.
“Cockroaches,” my father says. “That’s all that’ll be left, once they get through with it.” He says this jovially, skewering a potato.
I sit eating my fried Spam, drinking my milk mixed from powder. What I relish the most are the lumps that float on the top. I’m thinking about Carol and Grace, my two best friends. At the same time I can’t remember exactly what they look like. Did I really sit on the floor of Grace’s bedroom, on her braided bedside rug, cutting out pictures of frying pans and washing machines from the Eaton’s Catalogue and pasting them into a scrapbook? Already it seems implausible, and yet I know I did it. Out behind the logging camp is a huge cutover where they’ve taken off the trees. Only the roots and stumps remain. There’s a lot of sand out there. The blueberry bushes have come up, as they do after a fire: first the fireweed, then the blueberries. We pick the berries into tin cups. Our mother pays us a cent a cup. She makes blueberry puddings, blueberry sauce, canned blueberries, boiling the jars in a large canning kettle over the outdoor fire.
The sun beats down, the heat comes wavering up off the sand. I wear a cotton kerchief on my head, folded into a triangle and tied behind my ears, the front of it damp with sweat. Around us is the drone of flies. I try to listen through it, behind it, for the sound of bears. I’m not sure what they would sound like, but I know that bears like blueberries, and they’re unpredictable. They may run away. Or they may come after you. If they come you should lie down and pretend to be dead. This is what my brother says. Then they might go away, he says; or they might scoop out your innards. I’ve seen fish guts, I can picture this. My brother finds a bear turd, blue and speckled and human-looking, and pokes a stick into it to see how fresh it is.
In the afternoons, when it’s too hot to pick berries, we swim in the lake, in the same water the fish come out of. I’m not supposed to go over my depth. The water is gelid, murky; down there, past where the sand drops away and it’s deep, there are old rocks covered with slime, sunken logs, crayfish, leeches, huge pike with undershot jaws. Stephen tells me fish can smell. He says they’ll smell us, and keep out of the way.
We sit on the shore, on rocks that poke up from the narrow beach, and toss bits of bread into the water, seeing what we can entice: minnows, a few perch. We search for flat stones and skip them, or we practice burping at will, or we put our mouths against the insides of our arms and blow to make farting noises, or we fill our mouths with water and see how far we can spit. In these contests I am not the winner, I am more like an audience; though my brother does not brag, and would probably do the same things, by himself, if I weren’t there.
Sometimes he writes in pee, on the thin edge of sand or on the surface of the water. He does this methodically, as if it’s important to do it well, the pee arching delicately out from the front of his swim trunks, from his hand and its extra finger, the writing angular, like his real writing, and ending always with a period. He doesn’t write his name, or dirty words, as other boys do, as I know from snowbanks. Instead he writes: MARS. Or, if he’s feeling up to it, something longer: JUPITER. By the end of the summer he has done the whole solar system, three times over, in pee.
It’s the middle of September; the leaves are already turning, dark red, bright yellow. At night when I walk to the outhouse, in the dark with no flashlight because I can see better that way, the stars are sharp and crystalline and my breath goes before me. I see my parents, in through the window, sitting beside the kerosene lamp, and they are like a faraway picture with a frame of blackness. It’s disquieting to look at them, in through the window, and know that they don’t know I can see them. It’s as if I don’t exist; or as if they don’t.
When we come back down from the north it’s like coming down from a mountain. We descend through layers of clarity, of coolness and uncluttered light, down past the last granite outcrop, the last small raggedy-edged lake, into the thicker air, the dampness and warm heaviness, the cricket noises and weedy meadow smells of the south.
We reach our house in the afternoon. It looks strange, different, as if enchanted. Thistles and goldenrod have grown up around it, like a thorny hedge, out of the mud. The huge hole and the mountain of earth next door have vanished, and in their place is a new house. How has this happened? I wasn’t expecting such changes.
Grace and Carol are standing among the apple trees, just where I left them. But they don’t look the same. They don’t look at all like the pictures of them I’ve carried around in my head for the past four months, shifting pictures in which only a few features stand out. For one thing they’re bigger; and they have on different clothes.
They don’t come running over, but stop what they’re doing and stare, as if we’re new people, as if I’ve never lived here. A third girl is with them. I look at her, empty of premonition. I’ve never seen her before.
G race waves. After a moment Carol waves too. The third girl doesn’t wave. They stand among the asters and goldenrod, waiting as I go toward them. The apple trees are covered with scabby apples, red ones and yellow ones; some of the apples have fallen off and are rotting on the ground. There’s a sweet, cidery smell, and the buzz of drunken yellowjackets. The apples mush under my feet. Grace and Carol are browner, less pasty; their features are farther apart, their hair lighter. The third girl is the tallest. Unlike Grace and Carol, who are in summer skirts, she wears corduroys and a pullover. Both Carol and Grace are stubby-shaped, but this girl is thin without being fragile: lanky, sinewy. She has dark-blond hair cut in a long pageboy, with bangs falling half into her greenish eyes. Her face is long, her mouth slightly lopsided; something about the top lip is a little skewed, as if it’s been cut open and sewn up crooked.
But her mouth evens out when she smiles. She has a smile like a grown-up’s, as if she’s learned it and is doing it out of politeness. She holds out her hand. “Hi, I’m Cordelia. And you must be…”
I stare at her. If she were an adult, I would take the hand, shake it, I would know what to say. But children do not shake hands like this.
“Elaine,” Grace says.
I feel shy with Cordelia. I’ve been riding in the back of the car for two days, sleeping in a tent; I’m conscious of my grubbiness, my unbrushed hair. Cordelia is looking past me to where my parents are unloading the car. Her eyes are measuring, amused. I can see, without turning around, my father’s old felt hat, his boots, the stubble on his face, my brother’s uncut hair and seedy sweater and baggy knees, my mother’s gray slacks, her manlike plaid shirt, her face blank of makeup.
“There’s dog poop on your shoe,” Cordelia says.
I look down. “It’s only a rotten apple.”
“It’s the same color though, isn’t it?” Cordelia says. “Not the hard kind, the soft squooshy kind, like peanut butter.” This time her voice is confiding, as if she’s talking about something intimate that only she and I know about and agree on. She creates a circle of two, takes me in. Cordelia lives farther east than I do, in a region of houses even newer than ours, with the same surrounding mud. But her house is not a bungalow, it has two stories. It has a dining room separated by a curtain which you can pull back to make the living room and the dining room into one big room, and a bathroom on the ground floor with no bathtub in it which is called the powder room. The colors in Cordelia’s house are not dark, like those in other houses. They’re light grays and light greens and whites. The sofa, for instance, is apple-green. There’s nothing flowered or maroon or velvet. There’s a picture, framed in light gray, of Cordelia’s two older sisters, done in pastels when they were younger, both wearing smocked dresses, their hair feathery, their eyes like mist. There are real flowers, several different kinds at once, in chunky, flowing vases of Swedish glass. It’s Cordelia who tells us the glass is Swedish. Swedish glass is the best kind, she says.
Cordelia’s mother arranges the flowers herself, wearing gardening gloves. My own mother doesn’t arrange flowers. Sometimes she sticks a few into a pot and puts them on the dinner table, but these are flowers she picks herself, during her exercise walks, in her slacks, along the road or in the ravine. Really they are weeds. She would never think of spending money on flowers. It occurs to me for the first time that we are not rich.
Cordelia’s mother has a cleaning lady. She is the only one of our mothers who has one. The cleaning lady is not called the cleaning lady, however. She is called the woman. On the days when the woman comes, we have to stay out of her way.
“The woman before this one,” Cordelia tells us, in a hushed, scandalized voice, “was caught stealing potatoes. She put her bag down and they rolled out, all over the floor. It was so embarrassing.” She means for them, not for the woman. “Of course we had to let her go.”
Cordelia’s family does not eat boiled eggs mushed up in a bowl but out of egg cups. Each egg cup has an initial on it, one for each person in the family. There are napkin rings too, also with initials. I have never heard of an egg cup before and I can tell Grace hasn’t either, by the way she keeps silent about it. Carol says uncertainly that she has them at home.
“After you eat the egg,” Cordelia tells us, “you have to put a hole in the bottom of the shell.”
“Why?” we say.
“So the witches can’t put out to sea.” She says this lightly but scornfully, as if only a fool would need to ask. But there’s the possibility she’s joking, or teasing. Her two older sisters have this habit also. It’s hard to tell when they mean to be taken seriously. They have an extravagant, mocking way of talking, which seems like an imitation of something, only it’s unclear what they’re imitating.
“I almost died” they say. Or, “I look like the wrath of God.” Sometimes they say, “I look like an absolute hag,” and sometimes, “I look like Haggis McBaggis.” This is an ugly old woman they seem to have made up. But they don’t really believe they almost died, or that they look ugly. Both of them are beautiful: one dark and intense, the other blond and kind-eyed and soulful. Cordelia is not beautiful in the same way. Cordelia’s two older sisters are Perdita and Miranda, but nobody calls them that. They’re called Perdie and Mirrie. Perdie is the dark one; she takes ballet, and Mirrie plays the viola. The viola is kept in the coat closet, and Cordelia takes it out and shows it to us, lying there mysterious and important in its velvet-lined case. Perdie and Mirrie make drawling, gentle fun of each other and of themselves for doing these things, but Cordelia says they are gifted. This sounds like vaccinated, something that’s done to you and leaves a mark. I ask Cordelia if she is gifted, but she puts her tongue in the corner of her mouth and turns away, as if she’s concentrating on something else.
Cordelia ought to be Cordie, but she’s not. She insists, always, on being called by her full name: Cordelia. All three of these names are peculiar; none of the girls at school have names like that. Cordelia says they’re out of Shakespeare. She seems proud of this, as though it’s something we should all recognize. “It was Mummie’s idea,” she says.
All three of them call their mother Mummie, and speak of her with affection and indulgence, as if she’s a bright but willful child who has to be humored. She’s tiny, fragile, absent-minded; she wears glasses on a silver chain around her neck and takes painting classes. Some of her paintings hang in the upstairs hall, greenish paintings of flowers, of lawns, of bottles and vases.
The girls have spun a web of conspiracy around Mummie. They agree not to tell her certain things.
“Mummie isn’t supposed to know that,” they remind one another. But they don’t like to disappoint her. Perdie and Mirrie try to do what they like as much as they can, but without disappointing Mummie. Cordelia is less agile at this: less able to do what she likes, more disappointing. This is what Mummie says when she’s angry: “I am disappointed in you.” If she gets very disappointed, Cordelia’s father will be called into it, and that is serious. None of the girls jokes or drawls when mentioning him. He is large, craggy, charming, but we have heard him shouting, upstairs.
We sit in the kitchen, avoiding the dust mop of the woman, waiting for Cordelia to come down to play. She has been disappointing again, she has to finish tidying her room. Perdie strolls in, her camel’s-hair coat thrown loosely, gracefully over one shoulder, her schoolbooks balanced on one hip. “Do you know what Cordelia says she wants to be when she grows up?” she says, in her husky, mock-serious, confiding voice. “A horse!” And we can’t tell at all whether or not it’s true. Cordelia has a whole cupboard filled with dress-up costumes: old dresses of Mummie’s, old shawls, old sheets you can cut up and drape around yourself. These used to be Perdie’s and Mirrie’s, but they’ve outgrown them. Cordelia wants us to act out plays, with her dining room and its curtain for the stage. She has an idea that we’ll put these plays on and charge money for them. She turns out the lights, holds a flashlight under her chin, laughs in an eerie manner: this is how such things are done. Cordelia has been to plays, and even the ballet, once: Giselle, she says, offhand, as if we know. But somehow these plays never take shape the way she wants them to. Carol giggles and can’t remember what she’s supposed to say. Grace doesn’t like being told what to do, and says she has a headache. Made-up stories don’t interest her unless they contain a lot of real things: toasters, ironing boards, the wardrobes of movie stars. Cordelia’s melodramas are beyond her.
“Now you kill yourself,” says Cordelia.
“Why?” says Grace.
“Because you’ve been deserted,” says Cordelia.
“I don’t want to,” says Grace. Carol, who is playing the maid, starts to giggle. So we merely dress up and then trail down the stairs and out across the newly sodded front lawn, our shawls dragging behind us, uncertain what’s supposed to happen next. Nobody wants to take boys’
parts because there are no good clothes for them, though from time to time Cordelia draws a mustache on herself with Perdie’s eyebrow pencil and wraps herself up in an old velvet curtain, in a last-ditch attempt at plot.
We walk home from school together, four now instead of three. There’s a little shop on a side street halfway home where we stop and spend our allowances on penny gumballs, red licorice whips, orange Popsicles, sharing everything out equally. There are horse chestnuts in the gutters, wet-looking and glossy; we fill the pockets of our cardigans with them, uncertain what to use them for. The boys of our school and the Catholic boys from Our Lady of Perpetual Help throw them at one another, but we would not do that. They could put out your eye.
The dirt path going down to the wooden footbridge is dry, dusty; the leaves of the trees which hang over it are dull green and worn-out from the summer. Along the edge of the path is a thicket of weeds: goldenrod, ragweed, asters, burdocks, deadly nightshade, its berries red as valentine candies. Cordelia says that if you want to poison someone this would be a good way. The nightshade smells of earth, damp, loamy, pungent, and of cat piss. Cats prowl around in there, we see them every day, crouching, squatting, scratching up the dirt, staring out at us with their yellow eyes as if we’re something they’re hunting.
There are empty liquor bottles tossed into this thicket, and pieces of Kleenex. One day we find a safe. Cordelia knows it’s called a safe, Perdie told her that once, when she was little and mistook one for a balloon. She knows it’s a thing men use, the kind of men we’re supposed to watch out for, though she doesn’t know why it’s called that. We pick it up on the end of a stick and examine it: whitish, limp, rubbery, like something inside a fish. Carol says “Ew.” We carry it furtively back up the hill and shove it through a grating in the pavement; it floats down there on the surface of the dark water, pallid and drowned-looking. Even finding such a thing is dirty; even concealing it. The wooden bridge is more askew, rottener than I remember. There are more places where the boards have fallen away. As a rule we walk down the middle, but today Cordelia goes right to the railing and leans on it, looking over. One by one and gingerly we follow. The stream below is shallow at this time of year; we can see the junk people have dumped into it, the worn-out tires, the broken bottles and rusty pieces of metal.
Cordelia says that because the stream flows right out of the cemetery it’s made of dissolved dead people. She says that if you drink it or step into it or even get too close to it, the dead people will come out of the stream, all covered with mist, and take you with them. She says the only reason this hasn’t happened to us is that we’re on the bridge and the bridge is wooden. Bridges are safe, over dead people streams like this one.
Carol gets frightened, or acts frightened. Grace says Cordelia is being silly.
“Try it and see,” says Cordelia. “Go on down there. I dare you.” But we don’t. I know this is a game. My mother goes down there for her walks, my brother goes there with other older boys. They slosh through the culverts in their rubber boots and swing from trees and from the lower beams of the bridge. The reason the ravine is forbidden to us is not the dead people but the men. All the same, I wonder what the dead people would look like. I believe in them and I don’t believe in them, both at the same time.
We pick blue and white weed flowers and some of the nightshade berries, and arrange them on burdock leaves by the side of the path, a horse chestnut on each. They are pretend meals, but it isn’t clear who they’re for. When we’re finished we walk up the hill, leaving these arrangements behind us, half wreath, half lunch. Cordelia says we have to wash our hands really well because of the deadly nightshade berries; we have to wash off the poisonous juice. She says one drop could turn you into a zombie. The next day when we come home from school these flower meals of ours are gone. Probably boys have destroyed them, it’s the sort of thing boys destroy; or else the lurking men. But Cordelia makes her eyes wide, lowers her voice, looks over her shoulder.
“It’s the dead people,” she says. “Who else could it be?”
W hen the handbell rings we line up in front of GIRLS, two by two, holding hands: Carol and me, then Grace and Cordelia back behind us because they’re a grade ahead. My brother is over there in front of BOYS. During recess he disappears into the cinder playground, where last week he had his lip kicked open during a soccer game and had to have stitches. I’ve seen the stitches, up close, black thread surrounded by swollen purple. I admire them. I know about the status conferred by wounds. Now that I’ve changed back from pants to skirts, I have to remember the moves. You can’t sit with your legs spread apart, or jump too high or hang upside-down, without ridicule. I’ve had to relearn the importance of underwear, which has a liturgy of its own:
I see England, I see France,
I can see your underpants.
Me no know, me no care,
Me no wear no underwear.
This is said by boys, while making faces like monkeys.
There’s a lot of speculation about underwear, especially the underwear of the teachers; but only that of the female teachers. Male underwear is of no importance. There aren’t very many male teachers anyway, and the few that do exist are elderly; there are no young men, because the war has eaten them. The teachers are mostly women over a certain age, women who aren’t married. Married women don’t have jobs; we know this from our own mothers. There’s something strange and laughable about older, unmarried women.
At recess, Cordelia doles out underwear: lavender frills for Miss Pigeon, who’s fat and saccharine; plaid for Miss Stuart, lace-edged to go with her hankies; red satin long johns for Miss Hatchett, who’s over sixty and wears garnet brooches. We don’t believe any of this underwear actually exists, but thinking about it is a nasty joy.
My own teacher is Miss Lumley. It’s said that every morning before the bell rings, even in late spring when it’s warm, she goes to the back of the classroom and takes off her bloomers, which are rumored to be of heavy navy-blue wool and to smell of mothballs and of other, less definable things. This isn’t repeated as speculation or as part of the underwear invention, but as fact. Several girls claim they’ve seen Miss Lumley putting her bloomers on again when they’ve had to stay in after school, and several others say they’ve seen them hanging in the cloakroom. The aura of Miss Lumley’s dark, mysterious, repulsive bloomers clings around her and colors the air in which she moves. It makes her more terrifying; but she is terrifying in any case.
My teacher of the year before was kindly but so unmemorable that Cordelia doesn’t even mention her in the underwear game. She had a face like a dinner roll and blancmange-colored skin, and ruled by wheedling. Miss Lumley rules by fear. She’s short, and oblong in shape, so that her iron-gray cardigan falls straight from shoulder to hip with no pause in between for a waist. She always wears this cardigan, and a succession of dark skirts, which can’t possibly be the same one. She has steel-rimmed glasses, behind which her eyes are hard to see, and black shoes with Cuban heels, and a tiny lipless smile. She does not send children to the principal for the strap, but does it herself, in front of the class, holding the hand out flat, bringing the black rubber strap down in sharp quick efficient strokes, her face white and quivering, while we watch, wincing, our eyes filling with involuntary tears. Some girls snivel audibly while she does this, even though she isn’t doing it to them, but this isn’t wise: Miss Lumley hates sniveling, and is likely to say, “I’ll give you something to cry about.” We learn to sit up straight, eyes front, faces blank, both feet on the floor, listening to the whack of rubber on cringing flesh. Mostly it’s boys who get the strap. They are thought to need it more. Also they fidget, especially during sewing. We are supposed to sew pot holders, for our mothers. The boys cannot seem to do this right; their stitches are large and clumsy, and they stick one another with the needles. Miss Lumley stalks the aisles, whacking their knuckles with a ruler.
The schoolroom is high-ceilinged, yellowy-brown, with blackboards at the front and along one side and tall many-paned windows above the radiators on the other side. Over the door to the cloakroom, so that you feel you’re being watched from behind, there’s a large photograph of the King and Queen, the King with medals, the Queen in a white ballgown and diamond tiara. High wooden desks that sit two, with slanted tops and holes for inkwells, are arranged in rows. It’s like all the other schoolrooms at Queen Mary, but it seems darker, possibly because there’s less decoration. Our old teacher brought paper doilies to school in her many efforts at appeasement, and her windows were always crawling with paper vegetation. But although Miss Lumley observes the seasons in this way too, the plants we bring forth under her glittering steel-rimmed eyes are smaller, shriveled-looking, so that there are never enough of them to cover the bare spaces of wall and glass. Also, if your fall foliage leaf or your pumpkin is not symmetrical, Miss Lumley won’t put it up. She has standards.
Things are more British than they were last year. We learn to draw the Union Jack, using a ruler and memorizing the various crosses, for St. George of England, St. Patrick of Ireland, St. Andrew of, Scotland, St. David of Wales. Our own flag is red and has a Union Jack in one corner, although there’s no saint for Canada. We learn to name all the pink parts of the map.
“The sun never sets on the British Empire,” says Miss Lumley, tapping the roll-down map with her long wooden pointer. In countries that are not the British Empire, they cut out children’s tongues, especially those of boys. Before the British Empire there were no railroads or postal services in India, and Africa was full of tribal warfare, with spears, and had no proper clothing. The Indians in Canada did not have the wheel or telephones, and ate the hearts of their enemies in the heathenish belief that it would give them courage. The British Empire changed all that. It brought in electric lights. Every morning, after Miss Lumley blows a thin metallic note on her pitch pipe, we stand up to sing “God Save the King.” We also sing,
Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves;
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves!
Because we’re Britons, we will never be slaves. But we aren’t real Britons, because we are also Canadians. This isn’t quite as good, although it has its own song:
In days of yore, from Britain‘s shore,
Wolfe, the dauntless hero, came
And planted firm Britannia’s flag
On Canada’s fair domain.
Here may it wave, our boast, our pride
And join in love together
The thistle, shamrock, rose entwine
The Maple Leaf forever.
Miss Lumley’s jaw quivers in a frightening way when we sing this. Wolfe’s name sounds like something you’d call a dog, but he conquered the French. This is puzzling, because I’ve seen French people, there are lots of them up north, so he couldn’t have conquered all of them. As for maple leaves, they’re the hardest part to draw on our red flag. Nobody ever gets them right.
Miss Lumley brings newspaper clippings about the Royal Family and sticks them to the side blackboard. Some of them are old clippings, and show Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose, in Girl Guide uniforms, making radio and other speeches during the Blitz. This is what we should be like, Miss Lumley implies: steadfast, loyal, courageous, heroic.
There are other newspaper pictures too, showing thin-looking children in scruffy clothes, standing in front of piles of rubble. These are to remind us that there are many starving war orphans in Europe, and we should remember that and eat our bread crusts and potato skins and everything else on our plates, because waste is a sin. Also we should not complain. We are not really entitled to complain, because we are lucky children: English children got their houses bombed and we did not. We bring our used clothing, from home, and Miss Lumley ties it up into brown paper packages and sends it to England. There isn’t much I can bring, because my mother tears our worn-out clothing up for dusters, but I manage to salvage a pair of corduroy pants, once my brother’s, then mine, now too small, and a Viyella shirt of my father’s that got washed wrong by mistake and shrank. It gives me a strange feeling on my skin to think of someone else, someone in England, walking around in my clothes. My clothes seem a part of me, even the ones I’ve outgrown.
All these things—the flags, the pitch pipe songs, the British Empire and the princesses, the war orphans, even the strappings—are superimposed against the ominous navy-blue background of Miss Lumley’s invisible bloomers. I can’t draw the Union Jack or sing “God Save the King” without thinking about them. Do they really exist, or not? Will I ever be in the classroom when she puts them on or—unthinkable—takes them off?
I’m not afraid of snakes or worms but I am afraid of these bloomers. I know it will be the worse for me if I ever actually catch sight of them. They’re sacrosanct, at the same time holy and deeply shameful. Whatever is wrong with them may be wrong with me also, because although Miss Lumley is not what anyone thinks of as a girl, she is also not a boy. When the brass handbell clangs and we line up outside our GIRLS door, whatever category we are in also includes her.
Four – Deadly Nightshade
I walk along Queen Street, past used comic book stores, windows full of crystal eggs and seashells, a lot of sulky black clothing. I wish I were back in Vancouver, in front of the fireplace with Ben, looking out over the harbor, while the giant slugs munch away at the greenery in the back garden. Fireplaces, back gardens: I wasn’t thinking about them when I used to come down here to visit Jon, over the wholesale luggage store. Around the corner was the Maple Leaf Tavern, where I drank draft beer in the dark, two stoplights away from the art school where I drew naked women and ate my heart out. The streetcars rattled the front windows. There are still streetcars.
“I don’t want to go,” I said to Ben.
“You don’t have to,” he said. “Call it off. Come down to Mexico.”
“They’ve gone to all the trouble,” I said. “Listen, you know how hard it is to get a retrospective anywhere, if you’re female?”
“Why is it important?” he said. “You sell anyway.”
“I have to go,” I said. “It wouldn’t be right.” I was brought up to say please and thank you.
“Okay,” he said. “You know what you’re doing.” He gave me a hug.
I wish it were true.
Here is Sub-Versions, between a restaurant supply store and a tattoo parlor. Both of these will go, in time: once places like Sub-Versions move in, the handwriting’s on the wall. I open the gallery door, walk in with that sinking feeling I always have in galleries. It’s the carpets that do it to me, the hush, the sanctimoniousness of it all: galleries are too much like churches, there’s too much reverence, you feel there should be some genuflecting going on. Also I don’t like it that this is where paintings end up, on these neutral-toned walls with the track lighting, sterilized, rendered safe and acceptable. It’s as if somebody’s been around spraying the paintings with air freshener, to kill the smell. The smell of blood on the wall.
This gallery is not totally sterilized, there are touches of cutting edge: a heating pipe shows, one wall is black. I don’t give a glance to what’s still on the walls, I hate those neo-expressionist dirty greens and putrid oranges, post this, post that. Everything is post these days, as if we’re all just a footnote to something earlier that was real enough to have a name of its own.
Several of my own paintings have been uncrated and are leaning against the wall. They’ve been tracked down, requested, gathered in from whoever owns them. Whoever owns them is not me; worse luck, I’d get a better price now. The owners’ names will be on little white cards beside the paintings, along with mine, as if mere ownership is on a par with creation. Which they think it is. If I cut off my ear, would the market value go up? Better still, stick my head in the oven, blow out my brains. What rich art collectors like to buy, among other things, is a little vicarious craziness. Face out is a piece I painted twenty years ago: Mrs. Smeath, beautifully rendered in egg tempera, with her gray hairpin crown and her potato face and her spectacles, wearing nothing but her flowered one-breast bib apron. She’s reclining on her maroon velvet sofa, rising to Heaven, which is full of rubber plants, while a moon shaped like a doily floats in the sky. Rubber Plant: The Ascension, it’s called. The angels around her are 1940s Christmas stickers, laundered little girls in white, with rag-set curly hair. The word Heaven is stenciled at the top of the painting with a child’s school stencil set. I thought that was a nifty thing to do, at the time.
I caught some shit for that piece, as I recall. But not because of the stencil. I don’t look at this painting for very long, or at any of them. If I do I’ll start finding things wrong with them. I’ll want to take an Exacto knife to them, torch them, clear the walls. Begin again. A woman strides toward me from the back, in a modified blond porcupine haircut, a purple jumpsuit and green leather boots. I know immediately that I should not have worn this powder-blue jogging outfit. Powder-blue is lightweight. I should’ve worn nun black, Dracula black, like all proper female painters. I should have some clotted-neck vampire lipstick, instead of wimping out with Rose Perfection. But that really would make me look like Haggis McBaggis. At this age the complexion can’t stand those grape-jelly reds, I’d look all white and wrinkly.
But I will tough out the jogging suit, I’ll pretend I meant it. It could be iconoclasm, how do they know? A powder-blue jogging suit lacks pretensions. The good thing about being out of fashion is that you’re never in fashion either, so you can never be last year’s model. That’s my excuse for my painting, too; or it was for years.
“Hi,” says the woman. “You must be Elaine! You don’t look much like your picture.” What does that mean, I think: better or worse? “We’ve talked a lot on the phone. My name is Charna.” Toronto didn’t used to have names like Charna. My hand gets crunched, this woman’s got about ten heavy silver rings strung onto her fingers like knuckle dusters. “We were just wondering about the order.” There are two more women; each of them looks five times more artistic than I do. They have abstract art earrings, hair arrangements. I am feeling dowdy.
They’ve got take-out gourmet sprout and avocado sandwiches and coffee with steamed milk, and we eat those and drink that while we discuss the arrangement of the pictures. I say I favor a chronological approach, but Charna has other ideas, she wants things to go together tonally and resonate and make statements that amplify one another. I get more nervous, this kind of talk makes me twitch. I’m putting some energy into silence, resisting the impulse to say I have a headache and want to go home. I should be grateful, these women are on my side, they planned this whole thing for me, they’re doing me an honor, they like what I do. But still I feel outnumbered, as if they are a species of which I am not a member.
Jon comes back tomorrow, from Los Angeles and his chain-saw murder. I can hardly wait. We’ll circumvent his wife, go out for lunch, both of us feeling sneaky. But it’s merely a civilized thing to do, having lunch with an ex-husband in a comradely way: a good coda to all that smashed crockery and mayhem. We’ve known each other since the year zot; at my age, our age, that’s becoming important. And from here he looks like relief.
Someone else comes in, another woman. “Andrea!” says Charna, stalking over to her. “You’re late!”
She gives Andrea a kiss on the cheek and walks her over to me, holding her arm. “Andrea wants to do a piece on you,” she says. “For the opening.”
“I wasn’t told about this,” I say. I’ve been ambushed.
“It came up at the last minute,” says Charna. “Lucky for us! I’ll put you two in the back room, okay? I’ll bring you some coffee. Getting the word out, they call it,” she adds, to me, with a wry smile. I allow myself to be herded down the corridor; I can still be bossed around by women like Charna.
“I thought you would be different,” says Andrea as we settle.
“Different how?” I ask.
“Bigger,” she says.
I smile at her. “I am bigger.”
Andrea checks out my powder-blue jogging suit. She herself is wearing black, approved, glossy black, not early-sixties holdover as mine would be. She has red hair out of a spray can and no apologies, cut into a cap like an acorn. She’s upsettingly young; to me she doesn’t look more than a teenager, though I know she must be in her twenties. Probably she thinks I’m a weird middle-aged frump, sort of like her high school teacher. Probably she’s out to get me. Probably she’ll succeed. We sit across from each other at Charna’s desk and Andrea sets down her camera and fiddles with her tape recorder. Andrea writes for a newspaper. “This is for the Living section,” she says. I know what that means, it used to be the Women’s Pages. It’s funny that they now call it Living, as if only women are alive and the other things, such as the Sports, are for the dead.
“Living, eh?” I say. “I’m the mother of two. I bake cookies.” All true. Andrea gives me a dirty look and flicks on her machine.
“How do you handle fame?” she says.
“This isn’t fame,” I say. “Fame is Elizabeth Taylor’s cleavage. This stuff is just a media pimple.”
She grins at that. “Well, could you maybe say something about your generation of artists—your generation of woman artists—and their aspirations and goals?”
“Painters, you mean,” I say. “What generation is that?”
“The seventies, I suppose,” she says. “That’s when the women’s—that’s when you started getting attention.”
“The seventies isn’t my generation,” I say.
She smiles. “Well,” she says, “what is?”
“The forties?” This is archaeology as far as she’s concerned. “But you couldn’t have been…”
“That was when I grew up,” I say.
“Oh right,” she says. “You mean it was formative. Can you talk about the ways, how it reflects in your work?”
“The colors,” I say. “A lot of my colors are forties colors.” I’m softening up. At least she doesn’t say like and you know all the time. “The war. There are people who remember the war and people who don’t. There’s a cut-off point, there’s a difference.”
“You mean the Vietnam War?” she says.
“No,” I say coldly. “The Second World War.” She looks a bit scared, as if I’ve just resurrected from the dead, and incompletely at that. She didn’t know I was that old. “So,” she says. “What is the difference?”
“We have long attention spans,” I say. “We eat everything on our plates. We save string. We make do.”
She looks puzzled. That’s all I want to say about the forties. I’m beginning to sweat. I feel as if I’m at the dentist, mouth gracelessly open while some stranger with a light and mirror gazes down my throat at something I can’t see.
Brightly and neatly she veers away from the war and back toward women, which was where she wanted to be in the first place. Is it harder for a woman, was I discriminated against, undervalued? What about having children? I give unhelpful replies: all painters feel undervalued. You can do it while they’re at school. My husband’s been terrific; he gives me a lot of support, some of which has been financial. I don’t say which husband.
“So you don’t feel it’s sort of demeaning to be propped up by a man?” she says.
“Women prop up men all the time,” I say. “What’s wrong with a little reverse propping?”
What I have to say is not altogether what she wants to hear. She’d prefer stories of outrage, although she’d be unlikely to tell them about herself, she’s too young. Still, people my age are supposed to have stories of outrage; at least insult, at least put-down. Male art teachers pinching your bum, calling you baby, asking you why there are no great female painters, that sort of thing. She would like me to be furious, and quaint.
“Did you have any female mentors?” she asks.
“Like, teachers, or other woman painters you admired.”
“Shouldn’t that be mentresses?” I say nastily. “There weren’t any. My teacher was a man.”
“Who was that?” she says.
“Josef Hrbik. He was very kind to me,” I add quickly. He’d fit the bill for her, but she won’t hear that from me. “He taught me to draw naked women.”
That startles her. “Well, what about, you know, feminism?” she says. “A lot of people call you a feminist painter.”
“What indeed,” I say. “I hate party lines, I hate ghettos. Anyway, I’m too old to have invented it and you’re too young to understand it, so what’s the point of discussing it at all?”
“So it’s not a meaningful classification for you?” she says.
“I like it that women like my work. Why shouldn’t I?”
“Do men like your work?” she asks slyly. She’s been going through the back files, she’s seen some of those witch-and-succubus pieces.
“Which men?” I say. “Not everyone likes my work. It’s not because I’m a woman. If they don’t like a man’s work it’s not because he’s a man. They just don’t like it.” I am on dubious ground, and this enrages me. My voice is calm; the coffee seethes within me.
She frowns, diddles with the tape recorder. “Why do you paint all those women then?”
“What should I paint, men?” I say. “I’m a painter. Painters paint women. Rubens painted women, Renoir painted women, Picasso painted women. Everyone paints women. Is there something wrong with painting women?”
“But not like that,” she says.
“Like what?” I say. “Anyway, why should my women be the same as everyone else’s women?” I catch myself picking at my fingers, and stop. In a minute my teeth will be chattering like those of cornered mice. Her voice is getting farther and farther away, I can hardly hear her. But I see her, very clearly: the ribbing on the neck of her sweater, the fine hairs of her cheek, the shine of a button. What I hear is what she isn’t saying. Your clothes are stupid. Your art is crap. Sit up straight and don’t answer back.
“Why do you paint?” she says, and I can hear her again as clear as anything. I hear her exasperation, with me and my refusals.
“Why does anyone do anything?” I say.
T he light fades earlier; on the way home from school we walk through the smoke from burning leaves. It rains, and we have to play inside. We sit on the floor of Grace’s room, being quiet because of Mrs. Smeath’s bad heart, and cut out rolling pins and frying pans and paste them around our paper ladies. But Cordelia makes short work of this game. She knows, instantly it seems, why Grace’s house has so many Eaton’s Catalogues in it. It’s because the Smeaths get their clothes that way, the whole family—order them out of the Eaton’s Catalogue. There in the Girls’ Clothing section are the plaid dresses, the skirts with straps, the winter coats worn by Grace and her sisters, three colors of them, in lumpy, serviceable wool, with hoods: Kelly Green, Royal Blue, Maroon. Cordelia manages to convey that she herself would never wear a coat ordered from the Eaton’s Catalogue. She doesn’t say this out loud though. Like the rest of us, she wants to stay on the good side of Grace. She bypasses the cookware, flips through the pages. She turns to the brassieres, to the elaborately laced and gusseted corsets—foundation garments, they’re called—and draws mustaches on the models, whose flesh looks as if it’s been painted over with a thin coat of beige plaster. She pencils hair in, under their arms, and on their chests between the breasts. She reads out the descriptions, snorting with stifled laughter: “”Delightfully trimmed in dainty lace, with extra support for the mature figure.“ That means big bazooms. Look at this— cup sizes! Like teacups!”
Breasts fascinate Cordelia, and fill her with scorn. Both of her older sisters have them by now. Perdie and Mirrie sit in their room with its twin beds and sprigged-muslin flounces, filing their nails, laughing softly; or they heat brown wax in little pots in the kitchen and take it upstairs to spread on their legs. They look into their mirrors, making sad faces—“I look like Haggis McBaggis! It’s the curse!” Their wastebaskets smell of decaying flowers.
They tell Cordelia there are some things she’s too young to understand, and then they tell these things to her anyway. Cordelia, her voice lowered, her eyes big, passes on the truth: the curse is when blood comes out between your legs. We don’t believe her. She produces evidence: a sanitary pad, filched from Perdie’s wastebasket. On it is a brown crust, like dried gravy. “That’s not blood,” Grace says with disgust, and she’s right, it’s nothing like when you cut your finger. Cordelia is indignant. But she can prove nothing.
I haven’t thought much about grown-up women’s bodies before. But now these bodies are revealed in their true, upsetting light: alien and bizarre, hairy, squashy, monstrous. We hang around outside the room where Perdie and Mirrie are peeling the wax off their legs while they utter yelps of pain, trying to see through the keyhole, giggling: they embarrass us, although we don’t know why. They know they’re being laughed at and come to the door to shoo us away. “Cordelia, why don’t you and your little friends bug off!” They smile a little ominously, as if they know already what is in store for us. “Just wait and see,”
This frightens us. Whatever has happened to them, bulging them, softening them, causing them to walk rather than run, as if there’s some invisible leash around their necks, holding them in check—whatever it is, it may happen to us too. We look surreptitiously at the breasts of women on the street, of our teachers; though not of our mothers, that would be too close for comfort. We examine our legs and underarms for sprouting hairs, our chests for swellings. But nothing is happening: so far we are safe. Cordelia turns to the back pages of the catalogue, where the pictures are in gray and black and there are crutches and trusses and prosthetic devices. “Breast pumps,” she says. “See this? It’s for pumping your titties up bigger, like a bicycle pump.” And we don’t know what to believe. We can’t ask our mothers. It’s hard to imagine them without clothes, to think of them as having bodies at all, under their dresses. There’s a great deal they don’t say. Between us and them is a gulf, an abyss, that goes down and down. It’s filled with wordlessness. They wrap up the garbage in several layers of newspaper and tie it with string, and even so it drips onto the freshly waxed floor. Their clotheslines are strung with underpants, nighties, socks, a display of soiled intimacy, which they have washed and rinsed, plunging their hands into the gray curdled water. They know about toilet brushes, about toilet seats, about germs. The world is dirty, no matter how much they clean, and we know they will not welcome our grubby little questions. So instead a long whisper runs among us, from child to child, gathering horror. Cordelia says that men have carrots, between their legs. They aren’t really carrots but something worse. They’re covered with hair. Seeds come out the end and get into women’s stomachs and grow into babies, whether you want it or not. Some men have their carrots pierced and rings set into them as if they are ears.
Cordelia’s unclear about how the seeds get out or what they’re like. She says they’re invisible, but I think this can’t be so. If there are seeds at all they must be more like bird seeds, or carrot seeds, long and fine. Also she can’t say how the carrot gets in, to plant the seeds. Belly buttons are the obvious choice, but there would have to be a cut, a tear. The whole story is questionable, and the idea that we ourselves could have been produced by such an act is an outrage. I think of beds, where all of this is supposed to take place: the twin beds at Carol’s house, always so tidy, the elegant canopy bed at Cordelia’s, the dark mahogany-colored bed in Grace’s house, heavily respectable with its crocheted spread and layers of woolen blankets. Such beds are a denial in themselves, a repudiation. I think of Carol’s wry-mouthed mother, of Mrs. Smeath with her hairpinned crown of graying braids. They would purse their lips, draw themselves up in a dignified manner. They would not permit it.
Grace says, “God makes babies,” in that final way of hers, which means there is nothing more to be discussed. She smiles her buttoned-up disdainful smile, and we are reassured. Better God than us. But there are doubts. I know, for instance, a lot of things. I know that carrot is not the right word. I’ve seen dragonflies and beetles, flying around, stuck together, one on the back of the other; I know it’s called mating. I know about ovipositors, for laying eggs, on leaves, on caterpillars, on the surface of the water; they’re right out on the page, clearly labeled, on the diagrams of insects my father corrects at home. I know about queen ants, and about the female praying mantises eating the males. None of this is much help. I think of Mr. and Mrs. Smeath, stark-naked, with Mr. Smeath stuck to the back of Mrs. Smeath. Such an image, even without the addition of flight, will not do. I could ask my brother. But, although we’ve examined scabs and toe jam under the microscope, although we aren’t worried by pickled ox eyes and gutted fish and whatever can be found under dead logs, putting this question to him would be indelicate, perhaps hurtful. I think of JUPITER scrolled on the sand in his angular script, by his extra, dextrous finger. In Cordelia’s version it will end up covered with hair. Maybe he doesn’t know.
Cordelia says boys put their tongues in your mouth when they kiss you. Not any boys we know, older ones. She says this the same way my brother says “slug juice” or “snot” when Carol’s around, and Carol does the same thing, the same wrinkle of the nose, the same wriggle. Grace says that Cordelia is being disgusting.
I think about the spit you sometimes see, downtown, on the sidewalk; or cow’s tongues in butcher’s shops. Why would they want to do such a thing, put their tongues in other people’s mouths? Just to be repulsive, of course. Just to see what you would do.
I go up the cellar stairs, which have black rubber stair treads nailed onto them. Mrs. Smeath is standing at the kitchen sink in her bib apron. She’s finished her nap and now she’s upright, getting supper. She’s peeling potatoes; she often peels things. The peel falls from her large knuckly hands in a long pale spiral. The paring knife she uses is worn so thin its blade is barely more than a crescent moon sliver. The kitchen is steamy, and smells of marrow fat and stewing bones.
Mrs. Smeath turns and looks at me, a skinless potato in her left hand, the knife in her right. She smiles.
“Grace says your family don’t go to church,” she says. “Maybe you’d like to come with us. To our church.”
“Yes,” says Grace, who has come up the stairs behind me. And the idea is pleasing. I’ll have Grace all to myself on Sunday mornings, without Carol or Cordelia. Grace is still the desirable one, the one we all want.
When I tell my parents about this plan they become anxious. “Are you sure you really want to go?” my mother says. When she was young, she says, she had to go to church whether she liked it or not. Her father was very strict. She couldn’t whistle on Sundays. “Are you really sure?”
My father says he doesn’t believe in brainwashing children. When you’re grown up, then you can make up your own mind about religion, which has been responsible for a lot of wars and massacres in his opinion, as well as bigotry and intolerance. “Every educated person should know the Bible,” he says.
“But she’s only eight.”
“Almost nine,” I say.
“Well,” says my father. “Don’t believe everything you hear.”
On Sunday I put on the clothes my mother and I have picked out, a dress of dark-blue and green wool plaid, white ribbed stockings that attach with garters onto my stiff white cotton waist. I have more dresses than I once had, but I don’t go shopping with my mother to help pick them out, the way Carol does. My mother hates shopping, nor does she sew. My girls’ clothes are secondhand, donated by a distant friend of my mother’s who has a larger daughter. None of these dresses fits me very well; the hems droop, or the sleeves bunch up under my arms. I think this is the norm, for dresses. The white stockings are new though, and even itchier than the brown ones I wear to school. I take my blue cat’s eye marble out of my red plastic purse and leave it in my bureau drawer, and put the nickel my mother’s given me for the collection plate into my purse instead. I walk along the rutted streets toward Grace’s house, in my shoes; it isn’t time for boots yet. Grace opens her front door when I ring. She must have been waiting for me. She has a dress on too and white stockings, and navy-blue bows at the ends of her braids. She looks me over. “She doesn’t have a hat,” she says. Mrs. Smeath, standing in the hallway, considers me as if I’m an orphan left on her doorstep. She sends Grace upstairs to search for another hat, and Grace comes back down with an old one of dark-blue velvet with an elastic under the chin. It’s too small for me but Mrs. Smeath says it will do for now. “We don’t go into our church with our heads uncovered,” she says. She emphasizes oar, as if there are other, inferior, bareheaded churches.
Mrs. Smeath has a sister, who is going with us to church. Her name is Aunt Mildred. She’s older and has been a missionary in China. She has the same knuckly red hands, the same metal-rimmed glasses, the same hair crown as Mrs. Smeath, only hers is all gray, and the hairs on her face are gray too and more numerous. Both of them have hats that look like packages of felt carelessly done up, with several ends sticking into the air. I’ve seen such hats in the Eaton’s Catalogues of several years back, worn by models with sleeked-back hair and high cheekbones and dark-red, glossy mouths. On Mrs. Smeath and her sister they don’t have the same effect.
When all of the Smeaths have their coats and hats on we climb into their car: Mrs. Smeath and Aunt Mildred in the front, me and Grace and her two little sisters in the back. Although I still worship Grace, this worship is not at all physical, and being squashed into the back seat of her car, so close to her, embarrasses me. Right in front of my face Mr. Smeath is driving. He is short and bald and hardly ever seen. It’s the same with Carol’s father, with Cordelia’s: in the daily life of houses, fathers are largely invisible.
We drive through the nearly empty Sunday streets, following the streetcar tracks west. The air inside the car fills with the used breath of the Smeaths, a stale smell like dried saliva. The church is large and made of brick; on the top of it, instead of a cross, there’s a thing that looks like an onion and goes around. I ask about this onion, which may mean something religious for all I know, but Grace says it’s a ventilator. Mr. Smeath parks the car and we get out of it and go inside. We sit in a row, on a long bench made of dark shiny wood, which Grace says is a pew. This is the first time I’ve ever been inside a church. There’s a high ceiling, with lights shaped like morning glories hanging down on chains, and a plain gold cross up at the front with a vase of white flowers. Behind that there are three stained-glass windows. The biggest, middle one has Jesus in white, with his hands held out sideways and a white bird hovering over his head. Underneath it says in thick black Bible-type letters with dots in between the words: THE•
KINGDOM•OF•GOD•IS•WITHIN•YOU. On the left side is Jesus sitting down, sideways in pinky-red, with two children leaning on his knees. It says: SUFFER•THE•LITTLE•CHILDREN. Both of the Jesuses have halos. On the other side is a woman in blue, with no halo and a white kerchief partly covering her face. She’s carrying a basket and reaching down one hand. There’s a man sitting down at her feet, with what looks like a bandage wound around his head. It says: THE•GREATEST•OF•THESE•IS•CHARITY. Around all these windows are borders, with vines twining around and bunches of grapes, and different flowers. The windows have light coming in behind them, which illuminates them. I can hardly take my eyes off them.
Then there’s organ music and everyone stands up, and I become confused. I watch what Grace does, and stand up when she stands up, sit when she sits. During the songs she holds the hymnbook open and points, but I don’t know any of the tunes. After a while it’s time for us to go to Sunday school, and so we file out with the other children in a line and go down into the church basement. At the entrance to the Sunday school place there’s a blackboard, where someone has printed, in colored chalk: KILROY WAS HERE. Beside this is a drawing of a man’s eyes and nose, looking over a fence. Sunday school is in classes, like ordinary school. The teachers are younger though; ours is an older teenager with a light-blue hat and a veil. Our class is all girls. The teacher reads us a Bible story about Joseph and his coat of many colors. Then she listens as the girls recite things they’re supposed to have memorized. I sit on my chair, dangling my legs. I haven’t memorized anything. The teacher smiles at me and says she hopes I will come back every week.
After this all the different classes go into a large room with rows of gray wooden benches in it, like the benches we eat our lunches on at school. We sit on the benches, the lights are turned off, and colored slides are projected onto the bare wall at the far end of the room. The slides aren’t photographs but paintings. They look old-fashioned. The first one shows a knight riding through the forest, gazing upward to where a shaft of light streams down through the trees. The skin of this knight is very white, his eyes are large like a girl’s, and his hand is pressed to where his heart must be, under his armor, which looks like car fenders. Under his large, luminous face I can see the light switches and the top boards of the wainscoting, and the corner of the small piano, where it juts out.
The next picture has the same knight only smaller, and underneath him some words, which we sing to the heavy thumping of chords from the unseen piano:
I would be true, for there are those who trust me,
I would be pure, for there are those who care,
I would be strong, for there is much to suffer,
I would be brave, for there is much to dare.
Beside me, in the dark, I hear Grace’s voice going up and up, thin and reedy, like a bird’s. She knows all the words; she knew all the words to her memory passage from the Bible too. When we bend our heads to pray I reel suffused with goodness, I feel included, taken in. God loves me, whoever he is. After Sunday school we go back into the regular church for the last part, and I put my nickel on the collection plate. Then there is something called the Doxology. Then we walk out of the church and stuff back into the Smeaths’ car, and Grace says carefully, “Daddy, may we go and see the trains?” and the little girls, with a show of enthusiasm, say, “Yes, yes.”
Mr. Smeath says, “Have you been good?” and the little girls say, “Yes, yes” again. Mrs. Smeath makes an indeterminate sound. “Oh, all right,” says Mr. Smeath to the little girls. He drives the car south through the empty streets, along the streetcar tracks, past a single streetcar like a gliding island, until finally we see the flat gray lake in the distance, and below us, over the edge of a sort of low cliff, a flat gray plain covered with train tracks. On this metal-covered plain several trains are shunting slowly back and forth. Because it is Sunday, and because this is evidently a routine after-church Sunday event for the Smeaths, I have the idea that the train tracks and the lethargic, ponderous trains have something to do with God. It is also clear to me that the person who really wants to see the trains is not Grace, or any of the little girls, but Mr. Smeath himself.
We sit there in the parked car watching the trains until Mrs. Smeath says that the dinner will be ruined. After that we drive back to Grace’s house.
I am invited for Sunday dinner. It’s the first time I’ve ever stayed for dinner at Grace’s. Before dinner Grace takes me upstairs so we can wash our hands, and I learn a new thing about her house: you are only allowed four squares of toilet paper. The soap in the bathroom is black and rough. Grace says it’s tar soap.
The dinner is baked ham and baked beans and baked potatoes and mashed squash. Mr. Smeath carves the ham, Mrs. Smeath adds the vegetables, the plates get passed around. Grace’s little sisters look at me through their eyeglasses when I start to eat.
“We say grace in this house,” says Aunt Mildred, smiling firmly, and I don’t know what she’s talking about. I look at Grace: why do they want to say her name? But they all bend their heads and put their hands together and Grace says, “For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful, Amen,” and Mr. Smeath says, “Good food, good drink, good God, let’s eat,” and winks at me. Mrs. Smeath says “Lloyd,” and Mr. Smeath gives a small, conspiratorial laugh. After dinner Grace and I sit in the living room, on the velvet chesterfield, the same one Mrs. Smeath takes her naps on. I’ve never sat on it before and feel I’m sitting on something reserved, like a throne or a coffin. We read our Sunday school paper, which has the story of Joseph in it and a modern story about a boy who steals from the collection plate but repents and collects wastepaper and old bottles for the church, to make reparations. The pictures are black-and-white pen-and-ink drawings, but on the front is a colored picture of Jesus, in pastel robes, surrounded by children, all of different colors, brown, yellow, white, clean and pretty, some holding his hand, others gazing up at him with large worshipful eyes. This Jesus does not have a halo.
Mr. Smeath dozes in the maroon easy chair, his round belly swelling up. From the kitchen comes the clatter of silverware. Mrs. Smeath and Aunt Mildred are doing the dishes. I reach home in the late afternoon, with my red plastic purse and my Sunday school paper. “Did you like it?” says my mother, still with the same air of anxiety.
“Did you learn anything?” says my father.
“I have to memorize a psalm,” I say importantly. The word psalm sounds like a secret password. I am a little resentful. There are things my parents have been keeping from me, things I need to know. The hats, for instance: how could my mother have forgotten about the hats? God is not an entirely new idea for me: they have him at school in the morning prayers, and even in “God Save the King.” But it seems there is more to it, more things to be memorized, more songs to be sung, more nickels to be donated, before he can be truly appeased. I am worried about Heaven though. What age will I be when I get there? What if I’m old when I die? In Heaven I want to be the age I am.
I have a Bible, on loan from Grace, her second-best. I go to my room and begin to memorize: The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
I still don’t nave any bedroom curtains. I look out the window, look up: there are the heavens, there are the stars, where they usually are. They no longer look cold and white and remote, like alcohol and enamel trays. Now they look watchful.
T he girls stand in the schoolyard or up on top of the hill, in small clumps, whispering and whispering and doing spool work. It’s now the fashion to have a spool with four nails pounded into one end, and a ball of wool. You loop the wool over each nail in turn, twice around, and use a fifth nail to hook the bottom loops over the top ones. Out of the other end of the spool dangles a round thick wool tail, which you’re supposed to wind up like a flat snail shell and sew into a mat to put the teapot on. I have such a spool, and so do Grace and Carol, and even Cordelia, although her wool is a snarl. These clumps of whispering girls with their spools and colored wool tails have to do with boys, with the separateness of boys. Each cluster of girls excludes some other girls, but all boys. The boys exclude us too, but their exclusion is active, they make a point of it. We don’t need to. Sometimes I still go into my brother’s room and lie around on the floor reading comic books, but I never do this when any other girl is there. Alone I am tolerated, as part of a group of girls I would not be. This goes without saying.
Once I took boys for granted, I was used to them. But now I pay more attention, because boys are not the same. For example, they don’t take baths as often as they’re expected to. They smell of grubby flesh, of scalp, but also of leather, from the knee patches on their breeches, and wool, from the breeches themselves, which come down only to below the knee, and lace up there like football pants. On the bottom parts of their legs they wear thick wool socks, which are usually damp and falling down. On their heads, outdoors, they wear leather helmets that strap under the chin. Their clothing is khaki, or navy-blue or gray, or forest green, colors that don’t show the dirt as much. All of this has a military feel to it. Boys pride themselves on their drab clothing, their drooping socks, their smeared and inky skin: dirt, for them, is almost as good as wounds. They work at acting like boys. They call each other by their last names, draw attention to any extra departures from cleanliness. “Hey, Robertson! Wipe off the snot!” “Who farted?” They punch one another on the arm, saying, “Got you!” “Got you back!” There always seem to be more of them in the room than there actually are.
My brother punches arms and makes remarks about smells like the rest of them, but he has a secret. He would never tell it to these other boys, because of the way they would laugh. The secret is that he has a girlfriend. This girlfriend is so secret she doesn’t even know about it herself. I’m the only one he’s told, and I have been double-sworn not to tell anyone else. Even when we’re alone I’m not allowed to refer to her by her name, only by her initials, which are B.W. My brother will sometimes murmur these initials when there are other people around, my parents for instance. When he says them he stares at me, waiting for me to nod or give some sign that I have heard and understood. He writes me notes in code, which he leaves where I’ll find them, under my pillow, tucked into my top bureau drawer. When I translate these notes they turn out to be so unlike him, so lacking in invention, so moronic in fact, that I can hardly believe it: “Talked to B.W.” “Saw HER today.” He writes these notes in colored pencil, different colors, with exclamation marks. One night there’s a freak early snowfall, and in the morning when I wake up and look out my bedroom window there are the supercharged initials, etched in pee on the white ground, already melting.
I can see that this girlfriend is causing him some anguish, as well as excitement, but I can’t understand why. I know who she is. Her real name is Bertha Watson, she hangs around with the older girls, up on the hill under the stunted fir trees. She has straight brown hair with bangs and she’s of ordinary size. There’s no magic about her that I can see, or any abnormality. I’d like to know how she’s done it, this trick with my brother that’s turned him into a stupider, more nervous identical twin of himself. Knowing this secret, being the only one chosen to know, makes me feel important in a way. But it’s a negative importance, it’s the importance of a blank sheet of paper. I can know because I don’t count. I feel singled out, but also bereft. Also protective of him, because for the first time in my life I feel responsible for him. He is at risk, and I have power over him. It occurs to me that I could tell on him, lay him open to derision; I have that choice. He is at my mercy and I don’t want it. I want him back the way he was, unchanged, invincible.
The girlfriend doesn’t last long. After a while nothing more is heard of her. My brother makes fun of me again, or ignores me; he’s back in charge. He gets a chemistry set and does experiments down in the basement. As an obsession I prefer the chemistry set to the girlfriend. There are things stewing, horrible stinks, little sulfurous explosions, amazing illusions. There’s invisible writing that comes out when you hold the paper over a candle. You can make a hard-boiled egg rubbery so it will go into a milk bottle, although getting it out again is more difficult. Turn Water to Blood, the instructions say, and Astound Your Friends.
He still trades comic books, but effortlessly, absent-mindedly. Because he cares less about them he makes better trades. The comic books pile up under his bed, stacks and stacks of them, but he seldom reads them any more when the other boys aren’t around.
My brother exhausts the chemistry set. Now he has a star map, pinned to the wall of his room, and at night he turns out the lights and sits beside the darkened, open window, in the cold, with his maroon sweater pulled on over his pajamas, gazing skyward. He has a pair of my father’s binoculars, which he’s allowed to use as long as he keeps the strap around his neck so he won’t drop them. What he really wants next is a telescope.
When he allows me to join him, and when he feels like talking, he teaches me new names, charts the reference points: Orion, the Bear, the Dragon, the Swan. These are constellations. Every one of them is made up of a huge number of stars, hundreds of times bigger and hotter than our own sun. These stars are light-years away, he says. We aren’t really seeing them at all, we’re just seeing the light they sent out years, hundreds of years, thousands of years ago. The stars are like echoes. I sit there in my flannelette pajamas, shivering, the back of my neck hurting from the upward tilt, squinting into the cold and the infinitely receding darkness, into the black caldron where the fiery stars boil and boil. His stars are different from the ones in the Bible: they’re wordless, they flame in an obliterating silence. I feel as if my body is dissolving and I am being drawn up and up, like thinning mist, into a vast emptying space.
“Arcturus,” my brother says. It’s a foreign word, one I don’t know, but I know the tone of his voice: recognition, completion, something added to a set. I think of his jars of marbles in the spring, the way he dropped the marbles into the jar, one by one, counting. My brother is collecting again; he’s collecting stars.
B lack cats and paper pumpkins gather on the school windows. On Halloween Grace wears an ordinary lady’s dress, Carol a fairy outfit, Cordelia a clown suit. I wear a sheet, because that’s what there is. We walk from door to door, our brown paper grocery bags filling with candy apples, popcorn balls, peanut brittle, chanting at each door: Shell out! Shell out! The witches are out! In the front windows, on the porches, the large orange heads of the pumpkins float, glowing, unbodied. The next day we take our pumpkins to the wooden bridge and throw them over the edge, watching them smash open on the ground below. Now it’s November.
Cordelia is digging a hole, in her back garden where there’s no sod. She has started several holes before, but they have been unsuccessful, they struck rock. This one is more promising. She digs with a pointed shovel; sometimes we help her. It isn’t a small hole but a large, square hole; it gets deeper and deeper as the dirt piles up around it. She says we can use it for a clubhouse, we can put chairs down in the hole and sit on them. When it’s deep enough she wants to cover it over with boards, for a roof. She’s already collected the boards, scrap boards from the two new houses they’re building near her house. She’s very wrapped up in this hole, it’s hard to get her to play anything else.
On the darkening streets the poppies blossom, for Remembrance Day. They’re made of fuzzy cloth, red like valentine hearts, with a black spot and a pin through the center. We wear them on our coats. We memorize a poem about them:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow,
Between the crosses row on row
That mark our place.
At eleven o’clock we stand beside our desks in the dust motes of the weak November sunshine for the three minutes of silence, Miss Lumley grim at the front of the room, heads bowed, eyes closed, listening to the hush and the rustle of our own bodies and the booming of the guns in the distance. We are the dead. I keep my eyes closed, trying to feel pious and sorry for the dead soldiers, who died for us, whose faces I can’t imagine. I have never known any dead people.
Cordelia and Grace and Carol take me to the deep hole in Cordelia’s backyard. I’m wearing a black dress and a cloak, from the dress-up cupboard. I’m supposed to be Mary, Queen of Scots, headless already. They pick me up by the underarms and the feet and lower me into the hole. Then they arrange the boards over the top. The daylight air disappears, and there’s the sound of dirt hitting the boards, shovelful after shovelful. Inside the hole it’s dim and cold and damp and smells like toad burrows. Up above, outside, I can hear their voices, and then I can’t hear them. I lie there wondering when it will be time to come out. Nothing happens. When I was put into the hole I knew it was a game; now I know it is not one. I feel sadness, a sense of betrayal. Then I feel the darkness pressing down on me; then terror.
When I remember back to this time in the hole, I can’t really remember what happened to me while I was in it. I can’t remember what I really felt. Maybe nothing happened, maybe these emotions I remember are not the right emotions. I know the others came and got me out after a while, and the game or some other game continued. I have no image of myself in the hole; only a black square filled with nothing, a square like a door. Perhaps the square is empty; perhaps it’s only a marker, a time marker that separates the time before it from the time after. The point at which I lost power. Was I crying when they took me out of the hole? It seems likely. On the other hand I doubt it. But I can’t remember. Shortly after this I became nine. I can remember my other birthdays, later and earlier ones, but not this one. There must have been a party, my first real one, because who would have come to the others?
There must have been a cake, with candles and wishes and a quarter and a dime wrapped in wax paper hidden between the layers for someone to chip a tooth on, and presents. Cordelia would have been there, and Grace and Carol. These things must have occurred, but the only trace they’ve left on me has been a vague horror of birthday parties, not other people’s, my own. I think of pastel icing, pink candles burning in the pale November afternoon light, and there is a sense of shame and failure. I close my eyes, wait for pictures. I need to fill in the black square of time, go back to see what’s in it. It’s as if I vanish at that moment and reappear later, but different, not knowing why I have been changed. If I could even see the undersides of the boards above my head it might help. I close my eyes, wait for pictures.
At first there’s nothing; just a receding darkness, like a tunnel. But after a while something begins to form: a thicket of dark-green leaves with purple blossoms, dark purple, a sad rich color, and clusters of red berries, translucent as water. The vines are intergrown, so tangled over the other plants they’re like a hedge. A smell of loam and another, pungent scent rises from among the leaves, a smell of old things, dense and heavy, forgotten. There’s no wind but the leaves are in motion, there’s a ripple, as of unseen cats, or as if the leaves are moving by themselves.
Nightshade, I think. It’s a dark word. There is no nightshade in November. The nightshade is a common weed. You pull it out of the garden and throw it away. The nightshade plant is related to the potato, which accounts for the similar shape of the flowers. Potatoes too can be poisonous, if left in the sun to turn green. This is the sort of thing it’s my habit to know.
I can tell it’s the wrong memory. But the flowers, the smell, the movement of the leaves persist, rich, mesmerizing, desolating, infused with grief.
Five - Wringer
I leave the gallery, walk east. I need to go shopping, get some decent food, organize. When I’m by myself I revert to the times when I would forget about eating, stay up all night working, go until I felt an odd sensation I’d identify after some thought as hunger. Then I’d go through the refrigerator like a vacuum cleaner, sucking in whatever there was. Leftovers.
This morning there were eggs, but there are no more eggs. There’s no more bread, there’s no more milk. Why were there eggs and bread and milk in the first place? It must have been a stash of Jon’s, he must eat there sometimes. Or could it have been that he got this stuff for me? It’s hardly believable. I will buy oranges, yogurt without the jam. I will have a positive attitude, take care of myself, I’ll feed myself enzymes, and friendly bacteria. These good thoughts carry me until I’m right downtown. This is where Eaton’s used to be, here on this corner, yellow and foursquare. Now there’s a huge building in its place, what they call a shopping complex, as if shopping were a psychic disease. It’s glassy and be-tiled, green as an iceberg.
Across the street from it is known territory: Simpsons department store. I know it has a food hall somewhere. In the plate-glass windows there are heaps of bath towels, overstuffed sofas and chairs, sheets in modern prints. I wonder where all this cloth ends up. People cart it away, stuff it into their houses: the nesting instinct. A less attractive concept if you’ve ever seen a nest up close. There must be a limit to how much cloth you can cram into any one house, but of course it’s disposable. You used to buy for quality, things that would last. You kept your clothes until they were part of you, you checked the hemlines, the way the buttons were sewed on, you rubbed the cloth between your finger and thumb. The next windows contain disgruntled mannequins, their pelvises thrust out, their shoulders flung this way and that, making them look like hunchbacked ax murderers. I guess this is the look now: surly aggression. On the sidewalks there are a lot of androgynes, in the flesh, the girls in the black leather jackets and tough boots of boys, crewcuts, ducktails, the boys with the sullen pouty look of those women on the front covers of fashion magazines, their hair gelled into quills. At a distance I can’t tell the difference, though they themselves probably can. They make me feel outmoded.
What are they aiming for? Is each an imitation of the other? Or does it only seem that way to me because they’re all so alarmingly young? Despite their cool poses they wear their cravings on the outside, like the suckers on a squid. They want it all.
But I suppose that’s what Cordelia and I looked like then, to older people, crossing the street right here with our collars turned up and our eyebrows plucked into sceptical arches, swaggering in our rubber boots and straining for nonchalance, on our way down to Union Station where the trains came in, to put our quarters into the photo machine, four shots in monochrome, wallet-sized. Cordelia with a cigarette in the corner of her mouth, her eyelids half closed, trying for sultry. Ultrasharp. I revolve through the revolving doors into Simpsons, where I become lost immediately. They’ve changed the whole thing over. It used to be sedate wood-rimmed glass counters, with gloves in standard models, appropriate wrist-watches, accent scarves in floral prints. Serious-minded good taste. Now it’s a cosmetic fairground: silver trim, gold pillars, marquee lights, brand-name letters the size of a human head. The air is saturated with the stink of perfumes at war. There are video screens on which flawless complexions turn, preen, sigh through their parted lips, are caressed. On other screens are close-ups of skin pores, before and after, details of regimes for everything, your hands, your neck, your thighs. Your elbows, especially your elbows: aging begins at the elbows and metastasizes. This is religion. Voodoo and spells. I want to believe in it, the creams, the rejuvenating lotions, the transparent unguents in vials that slick on like roll-top glue. “Don’t you know what that junk is made of?”
Ben said once. “Ground-up cock’s combs.” But this doesn’t deter me, I’d use anything if it worked—slug juice, toad spit, eye of newt, anything at all to mummify myself, stop the drip-drip of time, stay more or less the way I am.
But I own enough of this slop already to embalm all of the girls in my high school graduating class, who must need it by now as much as I do. I stop only long enough to allow myself to be sprayed by a girl giving away free squirts of some venomous new perfume. The femme fatale must be back, Veronica Lake slinks again. The stuff smells like grape Kool-Aid. I can’t imagine it seducing anything but a fruit fly.
“You like this?” I say to the girl. They must get lonely, standing here all day in their high heels, spraying strangers.
“It’s been very popular,” she says evasively. Briefly I glimpse myself through her eyes: bloom off the rose, teetering on the brink of matronhood, hoping for the best. I am the market. I ask her where the food hall is, and she tells me. It’s down. I get on the escalator, but suddenly I’m going up. This is bad, confusing directions like that, or am I jumping time, did I go down already? I get off, and find myself wading through rack after rack of children’s party dresses. They have the lace collars, the puffed sleeves, the sashes I remember; many of them are in plaid, the authentic somber blood-lit colors, dark greens with a stripe of red, dark blues, black. Black Watch. Have these people forgotten history, don’t they know anything about the Scots, don’t they know any better than to clothe small girls in the colors of despair, slaughter, treachery and murder? My way of life, new line, Is fall’n into the sere and yellow leaf. Once we had to memorize things. Still, plaid was the fashion in my day too. The white socks, the Mary Janes, the always-inadequate birthday present swathed in tissue paper, and the little girls with their assessing eyes, their slippery deceitful smiles, tartaned up like Lady Macbeth. In the endless time when Cordelia had such power over me, I peeled the skin off my feet. I did it at night, when I was supposed to be sleeping. My feet would be cool and slightly damp, smooth, like the skin of mushrooms. I would begin with the big toes. I would bend my foot up and bite a small opening in the thickest part of the skin, on the bottom, along the outside edge. Then, with my fingernails, which I never bit because why bite something that didn’t hurt, I would pull the skin off in narrow strips. I would do the same to the other big toe, then to the ball of each foot, the heel of each. I would go down as far as the blood. Nobody but me ever looked at my feet, so nobody knew I was doing it. In the mornings I would pull my socks on, over my peeled feet. It was painful to walk, but not impossible. The pain gave me something definite to think about, something immediate. It was something to hold on to. I chewed the ends of my hair, so that there was always one lock of hair that was pointed and wet. I gnawed the cuticles off from around my fingernails, leaving welts of exposed, oozing flesh which would harden into rinds and scale off. In the bathtub or in dishwater my fingers looked nibbled, as if by mice. I did these things constantly, without thinking about them. But the feet were more deliberate. I remember thinking when the girls were born, first one and then the other, that I should have had sons and not daughters. I didn’t feel up to daughters, I didn’t know how they worked. I must have been afraid of hating them. With sons I would have known what to do: frog catching, fishing, war strategies, running around in the mud. I would have been able to teach them how to defend themselves, and what from. But the world of sons has changed; it’s more likely to be the boys now with that baffled look, like a night dweller gone blind in sunlight. “Stand up for yourself like a man,” I would have said. I would have been on shifty ground.
As for the girls, my girls at any rate, they seem to have been born with some kind of protective coating, some immunity I lacked. They look you in the eye, level and measuring, they sit at the kitchen table and the air around lights up with their lucidity. They are sane, or so I like to think. My saving graces. They amaze me, they always have. When they were little I felt I had to protect them from certain things about myself, the fear, the messier parts of the marriages, the days of nothing. I didn’t want to pass anything on to them, anything of mine they would be better off without. At those times I would lie on the floor in the dark, with the curtains drawn and the door closed. I would say, Mummy has a headache. Mummy’s working. But they didn’t seem to need that protection, they seemed to take everything in, look at it straight, accept everything. “Mummy’s in there lying on the floor. She’ll be fine tomorrow,” I heard Sarah tell Anne when one was ten and the other was four. And so I was fine. Such faith, like the faith in sunrise or the phases of the moon, sustained me. It must be this sort of thing that keeps God going.
Who knows what they’ll make of me later on, who knows what they’ve already made of me? I would like them to be the happy end of my story. But of course they are not the end of their own. Someone comes up behind me, a sudden voice out of thin air. She startles me. “May I help you?” It’s a saleslady, an older woman this time. Middle-aged. My age, I then think, discouraged. Mine and Cordelia’s.
I’m standing among the plaid dresses, fingering a sleeve. God knows how long I’ve been doing it. Have I been talking out loud? My throat feels tight and my feet hurt. But whatever else may be in store for me, I do not intend to slide off my trolley tracks in the middle of Simpsons Girlswear.
“The food hall,” I say.
She smiles gently. She is tired, and I am a disappointment to her, I don’t want any plaid. “Oh, you need to be right downstairs,” she says, “in the cellar.” Kindly, she directs me.
T he black door opens. I’m sitting in the mouse-dropping and formaldehyde smell of the building, on the window ledge, with the heat from the radiator going up my legs, watching out the window as the fairies and gnomes and snowballs below me slog through the drizzle to the tune of “Jingle Bells” played by a brass band. The fairies look foreshortened, damaged, streaked by the dust and rain on the window glass; my breath makes a foggy circle. My brother isn’t here, he’s too old for it. This is what he said. I have the whole window ledge to myself.
On the window ledge beside mine, Cordelia and Grace and Carol are sitting, jammed in together, whispering and giggling. I have to sit on a window ledge by myself because they aren’t speaking to me. It’s something I said wrong, but I don’t know what it is because they won’t tell me. Cordelia says it will be better for me to think back over everything I’ve said today and try to pick out the wrong thing. That way I will learn not to say such a thing again. When I’ve guessed the right answer, then they will speak to me again. All of this is for my own good, because they are my best friends and they want to help me improve. So this is what I’m thinking about as the pipe band goes past in sodden fur hats, and the drum majorettes with their bare wet legs and red smiles and dripping hair: what did I say wrong? I can’t remember having said anything different from what I would ordinarily say. My father walks into the room, wearing his white lab coat. He’s working in another part of the building, but he’s come to check on us. “Enjoying the parade, girls?” he says.
“Oh yes, thank you,” Carol says, and giggles. Grace says, “Yes, thank you.” I say nothing. Cordelia gets down off her windowsill and slides up onto mine, sitting close beside me.
“We’re enjoying it extremely, thank you very much,” she says in her voice for adults. My parents think she has beautiful manners. She puts an arm around me, gives me a little squeeze, a squeeze of complicity, of instruction. Everything will be all right as long as I sit still, say nothing, reveal nothing. I will be saved then, I will be acceptable once more. I smile, tremulous with relief, with gratitude. But as soon as my father is out of the room Cordelia turns to face me. Her expression is sad rather than angry. She shakes her head. “How could you?” she says. “How could you be so impolite? You didn’t even answer him. You know what this means, don’t you? I’m afraid you’ll have to be punished. What do you have to say for yourself?” And I have nothing to say.
I’m standing outside the closed door of Cordelia’s room. Cordelia, Grace, and Carol are inside. They’re having a meeting. The meeting is about me. I am just not measuring up, although they are giving me every chance. I will have to do better. But better at what?
Perdie and Mirrie come up the stairs, along the hall, in their armor of being older. I long to be as old as they are. They’re the only people who have any real power over Cordelia, that I can see. I think of them as my allies; or I think they would be my allies if they only knew. Knew what? Even to myself I am mute.
“Hello, Elaine,” they say. Now they say, “What’s the little game today? Hide-and-seek?”
“I can’t tell,” I answer. They smile at me, condescending and kind, and head toward their room, to do their toenails and talk about older things.
I lean against the wall. From behind the door comes the indistinct murmur of voices, of laughter, exclusive and luxurious. Cordelia’s Mummie drifts by, humming to herself. She’s wearing her painting smock. There’s a smudge of apple-green on her cheek. She smiles at me, the smile of an angel, benign but remote. “Hello, dear,” she says. “You tell Cordelia there’s a cookie for you girls, in the tin.”
“You can come in now,” says the voice of Cordelia from inside the room. I look at the closed door, at the doorknob, at my own hand moving up, as if it’s no longer a part of me. This is how it goes. It’s the kind of thing girls of this age do to one another, or did then, but I’d had no practice in it. As my daughters approached this age, the age of nine, I watched them anxiously. I scrutinized their fingers for bites, their feet, the ends of their hair. I asked them leading questions: “Is everything all right, are your friends all right?” And they looked at me as if they had no idea what I was talking about, why I was so anxious. I thought they’d give themselves away somehow: nightmares, moping. But there was nothing I could see, which may only have meant they were good at deception, as good as I was. When their friends arrived at our house to play, I scanned their faces for signs of hypocrisy. Standing in the kitchen, I listened to their voices in the other room. I thought I would be able to tell. Or maybe it was worse. Maybe my daughters were doing this sort of thing themselves, to someone else. That would account for their blandness, the absence of bitten fingers, their level blue-eyed gaze.
Most mothers worry when their daughters reach adolescence, but I was the opposite. I relaxed, I sighed with relief. Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.
It turns colder and colder. I lie with my knees up, as close to my body as I can get them. I’m peeling the skin off my feet; I can do it without looking, by touch. I worry about what I’ve said today, the expression on my face, how I walk, what I wear, because all of these things need improvement. I am not normal, I am not like other girls. Cordelia tells me so, but she will help me. Grace and Carol will help me too. It will take hard work and a long time.
In the mornings I get out of bed, put on my clothes, the stiff cotton waist with the garters, the ribbed stockings, the nubbled wool pullover, the plaid skirt. I remember these clothes as cold. Probably they were cold.
I put my shoes on, over my stockings and my peeled feet.
I go out to the kitchen, where my mother is cooking breakfast. There’s a pot with porridge in it, Red River cereal or oatmeal or Cream of Wheat, and a glass coffee percolator. I rest my arms on the edge of the white stove and watch the porridge, simmering and thickening, the flaccid bubbles coming up out of it one at a time and releasing their small puffs of steam. The porridge is like boiling mud. I know that when it comes time to eat the porridge I will have trouble: my stomach will contract, my hands will get cold, it will be difficult to swallow. Something tight sits under my breastbone. But I will get the porridge down somehow, because it’s required.
Or I watch the coffee percolator, which is better because I can see everything, the pinpoint bubbles gathering under the upside-down glass umbrella, then hesitating, then the column of water shooting upward through the stem, falling down over the coffee in its metal basket, the drops of coffee dripping down into the clear water, inking it brown.
Or I make toast, sitting at the table where the toaster is. Each of our spoons has a dark-yellow halibut liver oil capsule in it, shaped like a small football. There are the plates, gleaming whitely, and the glasses of juice. The toaster is on a silver heat pad. It has two doors, with a knob at the bottom of each, and a grid up the center that glows red-hot. When the toast is done on one side I turn the knobs and the doors open and the toast slides down and turns over, all by itself. I think about putting my finger in there, onto the red-hot grid.
All of these are ways of delaying time, slowing it down, so I won’t have to go out through the kitchen door. But no matter what I do, and despite myself, I am pulling on my snowpants, wadding my skirt in between my legs, tugging thick woolen socks on over my shoes, stuffing my feet into boots. Coat, scarf, mittens, knitted hat, I am encased, I am kissed, the door opens, then closes behind me, frozen air shoots up my nose. I waddle through the orchard of leafless apple trees, the legs of my snowpants whisking against each other, down to the bus stop.
Grace is waiting there and Carol, and especially Cordelia. Once I’m outside the house there is no getting away from them. They are on the school bus, where Cordelia stands close beside me and whispers into my ear: “Stand up straight! People are looking!” Carol is in my classroom, and it’s her job to report to Cordelia what I do and say all day. They’re there at recess, and in the cellar at lunchtime. They comment on the kind of lunch I have, how I hold my sandwich, how I chew. On the way home from school I have to walk in front of them, or behind. In front is worse because they talk about how I’m walking, how I look from behind. “Don’t hunch over,” says Cordelia. “Don’t move your arms like that.”
They don’t say any of the things they say to me in front of others, even other children: whatever is going on is going on in secret, among the four of us only. Secrecy is important, I know that: to violate it would be the greatest, the irreparable sin. If I tell I will be cast out forever. But Cordelia doesn’t do these things or have this power over me because she’s my enemy. Far from it. I know about enemies. There are enemies in the schoolyard, they yell things at one another and if they’re boys they fight. In the war there were enemies. Our boys and the boys from Our Lady of Perpetual Help are enemies. You throw snowballs at enemies and rejoice if they get hit. With enemies you can feel hatred, and anger. But Cordelia is my friend. She likes me, she wants to help me, they all do. They are my friends, my girl friends, my best friends. I have never had any before and I’m terrified of losing them. I want to please.
Hatred would have been easier. With hatred, I would have known what to do. Hatred is clear, metallic, one-handed, unwavering; unlike love.
N one of this is unrelenting.
On some days Cordelia decides that it’s Carol’s turn to be improved. I am invited to join Grace and Cordelia as they walk ahead on the way home from school, with Carol trailing behind, and to think of things Carol has done wrong. “Carol is a smarty-pants,” Cordelia says. At these times I don’t pity Carol. She deserves what’s happening to her, because of all the times she’s done the same things to me. I rejoice that it’s her turn instead of mine.
But these times don’t last long. Carol cries too easily and noisily, she gets carried away with her own crying. She draws attention, she can’t be depended on not to tell. There’s a recklessness in her, she can be pushed just so far, she has a weak sense of honor, she’s reliable only as an informer. If this is obvious to me, it must be even more obvious to Cordelia.
Other days appear normal. Cordelia seems to forget about improving anybody, and I think she may have given up on it. I’m expected to behave as if nothing has ever happened. But it’s hard for me to do this, because I feel I’m always being watched. At any time I may step over some line I don’t even know is there.
Last year I was hardly ever home, by myself, after school or on weekends. Now I want to be. I make excuses so I won’t have to go out and play. I still call it playing.
“I have to help my mother,” I say. This has a ring of truth to it. Girls do have to help their mothers, sometimes; Grace in particular has to help her mother. But it’s less true than I would like it to be. My mother doesn’t linger over housework, she’d rather be outside raking up leaves in the fall, shoveling snow in the winter, pulling weeds in the spring. When I help her I slow her down. But I dangle around the kitchen, saying, “Can I help?” until she gives me a duster and has me dust the scrolled legs of the dining table, or the edges of the bookcases; or I cut up dates, chop nuts, grease the muffin cups with a corner of waxed paper torn from the inside wrapper of the Crisco box; or I rinse the wash. I like rinsing the wash. The laundry room is small and enclosed, secret, underground. On the shelves there are packages of odd, power-filled substances: laundry starch in white twisted shapes like bird droppings, bluing to make the whites look whiter, Sunlight soap in bars, Javex bleach with a skull and crossbones on it, reeking of sanitation and death.
The washing machine itself is tubular white enamel, a hulk on four spindly legs. It dances slowly across the floor, chug-lug, chug-lug, the clothes and the soapy water moving as if boiling sluggishly, like cloth porridge. I watch it, hands on the edge of the tub, chin on hands, my body dragging downward from this ledge, not thinking about anything. The water turns gray and I feel virtuous because of all the dirt that’s coming out. It’s as if I myself am doing this just by looking.
My job is to run the washed clothes through the wringer into the laundry sink full of clean water and then into the second laundry sink for the second rinse, and after that into the creaky laundry basket. After that my mother takes the clothes outside and hangs them onto the clothesline with wooden clothespins. Sometimes I do this too. In the cold the clothes freeze stiff, like plywood. One day a small neighborhood boy collects horse buns, from the milk wagon horse, and puts them along the bottom folds of the freshly washed double-hung white sheets. All sheets are white, all milk comes from horses. The wringer is two rubber rollers, the color of pale flesh, that revolve around and around, the clothes squeezing in between them, water and suds squooshing out like juice. I roll up my sleeves, stand on tiptoe, rummage in the tub and haul up the sopping underpants and slips and pajamas, which feel like something you might touch just before you know it’s a drowned person. I poke the corners of the clothes in between the wringers and they are grabbed and dragged through, the arms or the shirts ballooning with trapped air, suds dripping from the cuffs. I’ve been told to be very careful when doing this: women can get their hands caught in wringers, and other parts of their bodies, such as hair. I think about what would happen to my hand if it did get caught: the blood and flesh squeezing up my arm like a traveling bulge, the hand coming out the other side flat as a glove, white as paper. This would hurt a lot at first, I know that. But there’s something compelling about it. A whole person could go through the wringer and come out flat, neat, completed, like a flower pressed in a book.
“You coming out to play?” says Cordelia, on our way home from school.
“I have to help my mother,” I say.
“Again?” says Grace. “How come she does that so much? She never used to do it.” Grace has begun talking about me in the third person, like one grown-up to another, when Cordelia is there. I think of saying my mother is sick, but my mother is so obviously healthy I know I won’t get away with this.
“She thinks she’s too good for us,” says Cordelia. Then, to me: “Do you think you’re too good for us?”
“No,” I say. Thinking you are too good is bad.
“We’ll come and ask your mother if you can play,” says Cordelia, switching back to her concerned, friendly voice. “She won’t make you work all the time. It isn’t fair.”
And my mother smiles and says yes, as if she’s pleased that I’m so much in demand, and I am pried away from the muffin cups and the washing machine wringer, expelled into the outside air. On Sundays I go to the church with the onion on top of it, crammed into the Smeaths’ car with all the Smeaths, Mr. Smeath, Mrs. Smeath, Aunt Mildred, Grace’s younger sisters, whose nostrils in the winter season are forever plugged with yellowy-green snot. Mrs. Smeath seems pleased about this arrangement, but she is pleased with herself, for going out of her way, for displaying charity. She’s not especially pleased with me. I can tell this by the line between her eyebrows when she looks at me, although she smiles with her closed lips, and by the way she keeps asking whether I wouldn’t like to bring my brother next time, or my parents? I focus on her chest, on her single breast that goes all the way down to her waist, with her dark-red, black-spotted heart beating within it, gasping in out, in out, out of breath like a fish on shore, and shake my head, ashamed. My failure to produce these other members of my family tells against me.
I have memorized the names of all the books of the Bible, in order, and the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, and most of the Beatitudes. I’ve been getting ten out of ten on my Bible quizzes and my memory work, but I’m beginning to falter. In Sunday school we have to stand up and recite, out loud, in front of the others, and Grace watches me. She watches everything I do on Sundays, and reports on me, matter-of-factly, to Cordelia.
“She didn’t stand up straight in Sunday school yesterday.” Or: “She was a goody-goody.” I believe each of these comments: my shoulders sag, my spine crumples, I exude the wrong kind of goodness; I see myself shambling crookedly, I make an effort to stand straighter, my body rigid with anxiety. And it’s true that I got ten out of ten, again, and Grace only got nine. Is it wrong to be right? How right should I be, to be perfect? The next week I put five wrong answers, deliberately.
“She only got five out of ten on Bible,” Grace says on Monday.
“She’s getting stupider,” Cordelia says. “You aren’t really that stupid. You’ll have to try harder than that!”
Today is White Gift Sunday. We have all brought cans of food from home for the poor, wrapped up in white tissue paper. Mine are Habitant pea soup and Spam. I suspect they are the wrong things, but they’re what my mother had in the cupboard. The idea of white gifts bothers me: such hard gifts, made uniform, bleached of their identity and colors. They look dead. Inside those blank, sinister bundles of tissue paper piled up at the front of the church there could be anything. Grace and I sit on the wooden benches in the church basement, watching the illuminated slides on the wall, singing the words to the songs, while the piano plods onward in the darkness. Jesus bids us shine
With a pure, clear light,
Like a little candle
Burning in the night:
In this world is darkness;
So let us shine,
You in your small corner,
And I in mine.
I want to shine like a candle. I want to be good, to follow instructions, to do what Jesus bids. I want to believe you should love your neighbors as yourself and the Kingdom of God is within you. But all of this seems less and less possible.
In the darkness I can see a gleam of light, to the side. It’s not a candle: it’s light reflected back off Grace’s glasses, from the light on the wall. She knows the words by heart, she doesn’t have to look at the screen. She’s watching me.
After church I go with the Smeaths through the vacant Sunday streets to watch the trains shunting monotonously back and forth along their tracks, on the gray plain beside the flat lake. Then I go back to their house for Sunday dinner. This happens every Sunday now, it’s part of going to church; it would be very bad if I said no, to either thing.
I’ve learned the way things are done here. I climb the stairs past the rubber plant, not touching it, and go into the Smeaths’ bathroom and count off four squares of toilet paper and wash my hands afterward with the gritty black Smeath soap. I no longer have to be admonished, I bow my head automatically when Grace says, “For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful, Amen.”
“Pork and beans the musical fruit, the more you eat, the more you toot,” says Mr. Smeath, grinning round the table. Mrs. Smeath and Aunt Mildred do not think this is funny. The little girls regard him solemnly. They both have glasses and white freckled skin and Sunday bows on the ends of their brown wiry braids, like Grace.
“Lloyd,” says Mrs. Smeath.
“Come on, it’s harmless,” Mr. Smeath says. He looks me in the eye. “Elaine thinks it’s funny. Don’t you, Elaine?”
I am trapped. What can I say? If I say no, it could be rudeness. If I say yes, I have sided with him, against Mrs. Smeath and Aunt Mildred and all three of the Smeath girls, including Grace. I feel myself turn hot, then cold. Mr. Smeath is grinning at me, a conspirator’s grin.
“I don’t know,” I say. The real answer is no, because I don’t in fact know what this joke means. But I can’t abandon Mr. Smeath, not entirely. He is a squat, balding, flabby man, but still a man. He does not judge me.
Grace repeats this incident to Cordelia, next morning, in the school bus, her voice a near whisper. “She said she didn’t know.”
“What sort of an answer was that?” Cordelia asks me sharply. “Either you think it’s funny or you don’t. Why did you say ”I don’t know‘?“
I tell the truth. “I don’t know what it means.”
“You don’t know what what means?”
“Musical fruit,” I say. “The more you toot.” I am now deeply embarrassed, because I don’t know. Not knowing is the worst thing I could have done.
Cordelia gives a hoot of contemptuous laughter. “You don’t know what that means?” she says. “What a stupe! It means fart. Beans make you fart. Everyone knows that.”
I am doubly mortified, because I didn’t know, and because Mr. Smeath said fart at the Sunday dinner table and enlisted me on his side, and I did not say no. It isn’t the word itself that makes me ashamed. I’m used to it, my brother and his friends say it all the time, when there are no adults listening. It’s the word at the Smeath dinner table, stronghold of righteousness.
But inwardly I do not recant. My loyalty to Mr. Smeath is similar to my loyalty to my brother: both are on the side of ox eyeballs, toe jam under the microscope, the outrageous, the subversive. Outrageous to whom, subversive of what? Of Grace and Mrs. Smeath, of tidy paper ladies pasted into scrapbooks. Cordelia ought to be on this side too. Sometimes she is, sometimes she isn’t. It’s hard to tell.
I n the mornings the milk is frozen, the cream risen in icy, granular columns out of the bottle necks. Miss Lumley bends over my desk, her invisible navy-blue bloomers casting their desolating aura around her. On either side of her nose the skin hangs down, like the jowls of a bulldog; there’s a trace of dried spit in the corner of her mouth. “Your handwriting is deteriorating,” she says. I look at my page in dismay. She’s right: the letters are no longer round and beautiful, but spidery, frantic, and disfigured with blots of black rusty ink where I’ve pressed down too hard on the steel nib. “You must try harder.” I curl my fingers under. I think she’s looking at the ragged edges of skin. Everything she says, everything I do, is heard and seen by Carol and will be reported later.
Cordelia is in a play and we go to watch her. This is my first play and I ought to be excited. Instead I am filled with dread, because I know nothing of the etiquette of play-going and I’m sure I’ll do something wrong. The play is at the Eaton’s Auditorium; the stage has blue curtains with black velvet horizontal stripes on them. The curtains part to reveal The Wind in the Willows. All the actors are children. Cordelia is a weasel, but since she’s in a weasel costume with a weasel head, it’s impossible to tell her apart from all the other weasels. I sit in the plush theater seat, biting my fingers, craning my neck, looking for her. Knowing she’s there but not knowing where is the worst thing. She could be anywhere. The radio fills with sugary music: “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which we have to sing in school, standing beside our desks with Miss Lumley tooting on her pitch pipe to give the note and keeping time with her wooden ruler, the same one she whacks the boys’
hands with when they fidget. Rudolph bothers me, because there’s something wrong with him; but at the same time he gives me hope, because he ended up beloved. My father says he is a nauseating commercial neologism. “A fool and his money are soon parted,” he says. We make red bells out of construction paper, folding the paper in half before cutting out the shape. We make snowmen the same way. It’s Miss Lumley’s recipe for symmetry: everything has to be folded, everything has two halves, a left and a right, identical.
I go through these festive tasks like a sleepwalker. I take no interest in bells or snowmen or for that matter in Santa Claus, in whom I’ve ceased to believe, since Cordelia has told me it’s really just your parents. There’s a class Christmas party, which consists of cookies brought from home and eaten silently at our desks, and different-colored jelly beans provided by Miss Lumley, five for each child. Miss Lumley knows what the conventions are and pays her own rigid tributes to them. For Christmas I get a Barbara Ann Scott doll, which I’ve said I wanted. I had to say I wanted something and I did in a way want this doll. I haven’t had any girl-shaped dolls before. Barbara Ann Scott is a famous figure skater, a very famous one. She has won prizes. I’ve studied the pictures of her in the newspaper.
The doll of her has little leatherette skates and a fur-trimmed costume, pink with white fur, and fringed eyes that open and close, but it looks nothing at all like the real Barbara Ann Scott. According to the pictures she’s muscular, with big thighs, but the doll is a slender stick. Barbara is a woman, the doll is a girl. It has the worrying power of effigies, a lifeless life that fills me with creeping horror. I put it back into its cardboard box and tuck the tissue paper around it, over the face. I say I’m doing this to keep it safe, but in fact I don’t want it watching me.
Over our chesterfield there’s a badminton net, festooned across the wall. In the squares of this net my parents have hung their Christmas cards. No one else I know has a badminton net like this on their wall. Cordelia’s Christmas tree is not like others: it’s covered in gauzy angel hair, and all the lights and decorations on it are blue. But she can get away with such differences, I can’t. I know I’ll be made to pay for the badminton net, sooner or later.
We sit around the table, eating our Christmas dinner. There’s a student of my father’s, a young man from India who’s here to study insects and who’s never seen snow before. We’re having him to Christmas dinner because he’s foreign, he’s far from home, he will be lonely, and they don’t even have Christmas in his country. This has been explained to us in advance by our mother. He’s polite and ill at ease and he giggles frequently, looking with what I sense is terror at the array of food spread out before him, the mashed potatoes, the gravy, the lurid green and red Jell-O salad, the enormous turkey: my mother has said that the food is different there. I know he’s miserable, underneath his smiles and politeness. I’m developing a knack for this, I can sniff out hidden misery in others now with hardly any effort at all. My father sits at the head of the table, beaming like the Jolly Green Giant. He lifts his glass, his gnome’s eyes twinkling. “Mr. Banerji, sir,” he says. He always calls his students Mr. and Miss. “You can’t fly on one wing.”
Mr. Banerji giggles and says, “Very true, sir,” in his voice that sounds like the BBC News. He lifts his own glass and sips. What is in the glass is wine. My brother and I have cranberry juice in our wineglasses. Last year or the year before we might have tied our shoelaces together, under the table, so we could signal each other with secret jerks and tugs, but we’re both beyond this now for different reasons.
My father ladles out the stuffing, deals the slices of dark and light; my mother adds the mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and asks Mr. Banerji, enunciating carefully, whether they have turkeys in his country. He says he doesn’t believe so. I sit across the table from him, my feet dangling, staring at him, enthralled. His spindly wrists extend from his over-large cuffs, his hands are long and thin, ragged around the nails, like mine. I think he is very beautiful, with his brown skin and brilliant white teeth and his dark appalled eyes. There’s a child these colors in the ring of children on the front of the Sunday school missionary paper, yellow children, brown children, all in different costumes, dancing around Jesus. Mr. Banerji doesn’t have a costume, only a jacket and tie like other men. Nevertheless I can hardly believe he’s a man, he seems so unlike one. He’s a creature more like myself: alien and apprehensive. He’s afraid of us. He has no idea what we will do next, what impossibilities we will expect of him, what we will make him eat. No wonder he bites his fingers.
“A little off the sternum, sir?” my father asks him, and Mr. Banerji brightens at the word.
“Ah, the sternum,” he says, and I know they have entered together the shared world of biology, which offers refuge from the real, awkward world of manners and silences we’re sitting in at the moment. As he slices away with the carving knife my father indicates to all of us, but especially to Mr. Banerji, the areas where the flight muscles attach, using the carving fork as a pointer. Of course, he says, the domestic turkey has lost the ability to fly.
“Meleagris gallopavo,” he says, and Mr. Banerji leans forward; the Latin perks him up. “A pea-brained animal, or bird-brained you might say, bred for its ability to put on weight, especially on the drumsticks”—he points these out—“certainly not for intelligence. It was originally domesticated by the Mayans.” He tells a story of a turkey farm where the turkeys all died because they were too stupid to go into their shed during a thunderstorm. Instead they stood around outside, looking up at the sky with their beaks Wide open and the rain ran down their throats and drowned them. He says this is a story told by farmers and probably not true, although the stupidity of the bird is legendary. He says that the wild turkey, once abundant in the deciduous forests in these regions, is far more intelligent and can elude even practiced hunters. Also it can fly.
I sit picking at my Christmas dinner, as Mr. Banerji is picking at his. Both of us have messed the mashed potatoes around on our plates without actually eating much. Wild things are smarter than tame ones, that much is clear. Wild things are elusive and wily and look out for themselves. I divide the people I know into tame and wild. My mother, wild. My father and brother, also wild; Mr. Banerji, wild also, but in a more skittish way. Carol, tame. Grace, tame as well, though with sneaky vestiges of wild. Cordelia, wild, pure and simple.
“There are no limits to human greed,” says my father.
“Indeed, sir?” says Mr. Banerji, as my father goes on to say that he’s heard some son of a gun is working on an experiment to breed a turkey with four drumsticks, instead of two drumsticks and two wings, because there’s more meat on a drumstick.
“How would such a creature walk, sir?” asks Mr. Banerji, and my father, approving, says, “Well may you ask.” He tells Mr. Banerji that some darn fool scientists are working on a square tomato, which will supposedly pack more easily into crates than the round variety.
“All the flavor will be sacrificed, of course,” he says. “They care nothing for flavor. They bred a naked chicken, thinking they’d get more eggs by utilizing the energy saved from feather production, but the thing shivered so much they had to double-heat the coop, so it cost more in the end.”
“Fooling with Nature, sir,” says Mr. Banerji. I know already that this is the right response. Investigating Nature is one thing and so is defending yourself against it, within limits, but fooling with it is quite another. Mr. Banerji says he hears there is now a naked cat available, he’s read about it in a magazine, though he himself does not see the point of it at all. This is the most he has said so far. My brother asks if there are any poisonous snakes in India, and Mr. Banerji, now much more at ease, begins to enumerate them. My mother smiles, because this is going better than she thought it would. Poisonous snakes are fine with her, even at the dinner table, as long as they make people happy. My father has eaten everything on his plate and is dig ging for more stuffing in the cavity of the turkey, which resembles a trussed, headless baby. It has thrown off its disguise as a meal and has revealed itself to me for what it is, a large dead bird. I’m eating a wing. It’s the wing of a tame turkey, the stupidest bird in the world, so stupid it can’t even fly any more. I am eating lost flight.
A fter Christmas I’m offered a job. The job is wheeling Brian Finestein around the block in his baby carriage after school, for an hour or a little longer if it isn’t too cold, one day a week. For this I get twenty-five cents, which is a lot of money.
The Finesteins live in the house beside ours, the big house that was built suddenly where the mud mountain used to be. Mrs. Finestein is short for a woman, plump, with dark curly hair and lovely white teeth. These show often, as she laughs a lot, wrinkling up her nose like a puppy as she does it, shaking her head, which makes her gold earrings twinkle. I’m not sure, but I think these earrings actually go through little holes in her ears, unlike any earrings I have ever seen. I ring the doorbell and Mrs. Finestein opens the door. “My little lifesaver,” she says. I wait in the vestibule, my winter boots dripping onto the spread newspapers. Mrs. Finestein, wearing a flowered pink housecoat and slippers with high heels and real fur, bustles upstairs to get Brian. The vestibule smells of Brian’s ammonia-soaked diapers, which are in a pail waiting to be collected by the diaper company. I’m intrigued by the idea that someone else can come and take away your laundry. Mrs. Finestein always has a bowl of oranges out, on a table up a few steps from the vestibule; no one else leaves oranges lying around like that when it isn’t Christmas. There’s a gold-colored candlestick like a tree behind the bowl. These things—the sickly sweet baby shit smell of the festering diapers, the bowl of oranges and the gold tree—blend in my mind into an image of ultrasophistication.
Mrs. Finestein clops down the stairs carrying Brian, who is zipped into a blue bunny suit with ears. She gives him a big kiss on his cheek, joggles him up and down, tucks him into the carriage, snaps up the waterproof carriage cover. “There, Bry-Bry,” she says. “Now Mummy can hear herself think.” She laughs, wrinkles her nose, shakes her gold earrings. Her skin is rounded out, milky-smelling. She’s not like any mother I’ve ever seen.
I wheel Brian out into the cold air and we start off around the block, over the crunchy snow which is spread with cinders from people’s furnaces and dotted here and there with frozen horse buns. I can’t figure out how Brian would ever be able to interfere with Mrs. Finestein’s thinking, because he never cries. Also he never laughs. He never makes any noises at all, nor does he go to sleep. He just lies there in his carriage, gazing solemnly up at me with his round blue eyes as his button of a nose gets redder and redder. I make no attempt to entertain him. But I like him: he’s silent, but also uncritical. When I think it’s time I wheel him back, and Mrs. Finestein says, “Don’t tell me it’s five o’clock already!” I ask her to give me nickels instead of a quarter, because it looks like more. She laughs a lot at that, but she does it. I keep all my money in an old tin tea caddy with a picture of the desert on it, palm trees and camels. I like taking it out and spreading it over my bed. Instead of counting it, I arrange it by the year that’s stamped on each piece of money: 1935, 1942, 1945. Every coin has a King’s head on it, cut off neatly at the neck, but the Kings are different. The ones from before I was born have beards, but the ones now don’t, because it’s King George, the one at the back of the classroom. It gives me an odd comfort to sort this money into piles of cut-off heads.
Brian and I wheel around the block, around the block again. It’s hard for me to tell when it’s an hour because I don’t have a watch. Cordelia and Grace come around the corner up ahead, with Carol trailing. They see me, walk over.
“What rhymes with Elaine?” Cordelia asks me. She doesn’t wait for an answer. “Elaine is a pain.”
Carol peers into the baby carriage. “Look at the bunny ears,” she says. “What’s his name?” Her voice is wistful. I see Brian in a new light. It isn’t everyone who’s allowed to wheel a baby.
“Brian,” I say. “Brian Finestein.”
“Finestein is a Jewish name,” says Grace.
I don’t know what Jewish is. I’ve seen the word Jew, the Bible is full of that word, but I didn’t know there were any live, real ones, especially next door to me.
“Jews are kikes,” says Carol, glancing at Cordelia for approval.
“Don’t be vulgar,” says Cordelia, in her adult voice. “Kike is not a word we use.”
I ask my mother what Jewish is. She says it’s a different kind of religion. Mr. Banerji is a different kind of religion as well, though not Jewish. There are many different kinds. As for the Jews, Hitler killed a great many of them, during the war.
“Why?” I say.
“He was demented,” says my father. “A megalomaniac.” Neither of these words is much help.
“A bad person,” says my mother.
I wheel Brian over the cindery snow, easing him around the potholes. He goggles up at me, his nose red, his tiny mouth unsmiling. Brian has a new dimension: he is a Jew. There is something extra and a little heroic about him; not even the blue ears of his bunny suit can detract from that. Jewish goes with the diapers, the oranges in the bowl, Mrs. Finestein’s gold earrings and her possibly real ear holes, but also with ancient, important matters. You wouldn’t expect to see a Jew every day. Cordelia and Grace and Carol are beside me. “How’s the little baby today?” asks Cordelia.
“He’s fine,” I say guardedly.
“I didn’t mean him, I meant you,” says Cordelia.
“Can I have a turn?” asks Carol.
“I can’t,” I tell her. If she does it wrong, if she upsets Brian Finestein into a snowbank, it will be my fault.
“Who wants an old Jew baby anyway,” she says.
“The Jews killed Christ,” says Grace primly. “It’s in the Bible.”
But Jews don’t interest Cordelia much. She has other things on her mind. “If a man who catches fish is a fisher, what’s a man who catches bugs?” she says.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“You are so stupid,” says Cordelia. “That’s what your father is, right? Go on. Figure it out. It’s really simple.”
“A bugger,” I say.
“Is that what you think of your own father?” Cordelia says. “He’s an entomologist, stupid. You should be ashamed. You should have your mouth washed out with soap.”
I know that bugger is a dirty word, but I don’t know why. Nevertheless I have betrayed, I have been betrayed. “I nave to go,” I say. Wheeling Brian back to Mrs. Finestein’s, I cry silently, while Brian watches me, expressionless. “Goodbye, Brian,” I whisper to him.
I tell Mrs. Finestein that I can’t do the job any more because I have too much schoolwork. I can’t tell her the real reason: that in some obscure way Brian is not safe with me. I have images of Brian headfirst in a snowbank; Brian hurtling in his carriage down the icy hill by the side of the bridge, straight toward the creek full of dead people; Brian tossed into the air, his bunny ears flung upwards in terror. I have only a limited ability to say no.
“Honey, that’s all right,” she says, looking into my raw, watery eyes. She puts her arm around me and gives me a hue and an extra nickel. No one has ever called me honey before this. I go home, knowing I have failed her, and also myself. Bugger, I think to myself. I say it over and over until it disappears into its own syllables. Erbug, erbug. It’s a word with no meaning, like kike, but it reeks of ill will, it has power. What have I done to my father?
I take all of Mrs. Finestein’s King’s-head nickels and spend them at the store on the way home from school. I buy licorice whips, jelly beans, many-layered blackballs with the seed in the middle, packages of fizzy sherbet you suck up through a straw. I dole them out equally, these offerings, these atonements, into the waiting hands of my friends. In the moment just before giving, I am loved.
I t’s Saturday. Nothing has happened all morning. Icicles form on the eaves trough above the south window, dripping in the sunlight with a steady sound like a leak. My mother is baking in the kitchen, my father and brother are elsewhere. I eat my lunch alone, watching the icicles. The lunch is crackers and orange cheese and a glass of milk, and a bowl of alphabet soup. My mother thinks of alphabet soup as a cheerful treat for children. The alphabet soup has letters floating in it, white letters: capital A’s and O’s and S’s and R’s, the occasional X or Z. When I was younger I would fish the letters out and spell things with them on the edge of the plate, or eat my name, letter by letter. Now I just eat the soup, taking no particular interest. The soup is orangey-red and has a flavor, but the letters themselves taste like nothing.
The telephone rings. It’s Grace. “You want to come out and play?” she says, in her neutral voice that is at the same time blank and unsoft, like glazed paper. I know Cordelia is standing beside her. If I say no, I will be accused of something. If I say yes, I will have to do it. I say yes.
“We’ll come and get you,” Grace says.
My stomach feels dull and heavy, as if it’s full of earth. I put on my snowsuit and boots, my knitted hat and mittens. I tell my mother I’m going out to play. “Don’t get chilled,” she says. The sun on the snow is blinding. There’s a crust of ice over the drifts, where the top layer of snow has melted and then refrozen. My boots make clean-edged footprints through the crust. There’s no one around. I walk through the white glare, toward Grace’s house. The air is wavery, filled with light, overfilled; I can hear the pressure of it against my eyes. I feel translucent, like a hand held over a flashlight or the pictures of jellyfish I’ve seen in magazines, floating in the sea like watery flesh balloons. At the end of the street I can see the three of them, very dark, walking toward me. Their coats look almost black. Even their faces when they come closer look too dark, as if they’re in shadow. Cordelia says, “We said we would come and get you. We didn’t say you could come here.”
I say nothing.
Grace says, “She should answer when we talk to her.”
Cordelia says, “What’s the matter, are you deaf?”
Their voices sound far away. I turn aside and throw up onto a snowbank. I didn’t mean to do it and didn’t know I was going to. I feel sick to my stomach every morning, I’m used to that, but this is the real thing, alphabet soup mixed with shards of chewed-up cheese, amazingly red and orange against the white of the snow, with here and there a ruined letter.
Cordelia doesn’t say anything. Grace says, “You better go home.” Carol, behind them, sounds as if she’s going to cry. She says, “It’s on her face.” I walk back toward my house, smelling the vomit on the front of my snow-suit, tasting it in my nose and throat. It feels like bits of carrot. I lie in bed with the scrub pail beside me, floating lightly on waves of fever. I throw up several times, until nothing but a little green juice comes out. My mother says, “I suppose we’ll all get it,” and she’s right. During the night I can hear hurrying footsteps and retching and the toilet flushing. I feel safe, small, wrapped in my illness as if in cotton wool.
I begin to be sick more often. Sometimes my mother looks into my mouth with a flashlight and feels my forehead and takes my temperature and sends me to school, but sometimes I’m allowed to stay home. On these days I feel relief, as if I’ve been running for a long time and have reached a place where I can rest, not forever but for a while. Having a fever is pleasant, vacant. I enjoy the coolness of things, the flat ginger ale I’m given to drink, the delicacy of taste, afterward.
I lie in bed, propped up on pillows, a glass of water on a chair beside me, listening to the faraway sounds coming from my mother: the eggbeater, the vacuum cleaner, music from the radio, the lakeshore sound of the floor polisher. Winter sunlight slants in through the window, between the half-drawn curtains. I now have curtains. I look at the ceiling light fixture, opaque yellowish glass with the shadows of two or three dead flies caught inside it showing through as if through cloudy jelly. Or I look at the doorknob. Sometimes I cut things out of magazines and paste them into a scrapbook with LePage’s mucilage, from the bottle that looks like a chess bishop. I cut out pictures of women, from Good Housekeeping, The Ladies’ Home Journal, Chatelaine. If I don’t like their faces I cut off the heads and glue other heads on. These women have dresses with puffed sleeves and full skirts, and white aprons that tie very tightly around their waists. They put germ killers onto germs, in toilet bowls; they polish windows, or clean their spotty complexions with bars of soap, or shampoo their oily hair; they get rid of their unwanted odors, rub hand lotion onto their rough wrinkly hands, hug rolls of toilet paper against their cheeks. Other pictures show women doing things they aren’t supposed to do. Some of them gossip too much, some are sloppy, others bossy. Some of them knit too much. “Walking, riding, standing, sitting, Where she goes, there goes her knitting,” says one. The picture shows a woman knitting on a streetcar, with the ends of her knitting needles poking into the people beside her and her ball of wool unrolling down the aisle. Some of the women have a Watchbird beside them, a red and black bird like a child’s drawing, with big eyes and stick feet. “This is a Watchbird watching a Busybody,” it says. “This is a Watchbird watching YOU.”
I see that there will be no end to imperfection, or to doing things the wrong way. Even if you grow up, no matter how hard you scrub, whatever you do, there will always be some other stain or spot on your face or stupid act, somebody frowning. But it pleases me somehow to cut out all these imperfect women, with their forehead wrinkles that show how worried they are, and fix them into my scrapbook. At noon there’s the Happy Gang, on the radio, knocking at the door.
Knock knock knock.
It’s the Happy Gang!
Well, come ON IN.!
Keep happy in the Happy Gang way,
Keep healthy, hope you re feeling okay,
Cause if you’re happy, and healthy,
The heck with being wealthy,
So he happy with the Happy Gang!
The Happy Gang fills me with anxiety. What happens to you if you aren’t happy and healthy? They don’t say. They themselves are always happy, or say they are; but I can’t believe anyone can be always happy. So they must be lying some of the time. But when? How much of their fake-sounding laughter is really fake?
A little later there’s the Dominion Observatory Official Time Signal: first a series of outer space beeps, then silence, then a long dash. The long dash means one o’clock. Time is passing; in the silence before the long dash the future is taking shape. I turn my head into the pillow. I don’t want to hear it.
T he winter melts, leaving a grubby scum of cinders, wet paper, soggy old leaves. A huge pile of topsoil appears in our backyard, then a pile of rolled-up squares of grass. My parents, in muddy boots and earth-stained pants, lay them over our mud like bathroom tiles. They pull out couch grass and dandelions, plant green onions and a row of lettuce. Cats appear from nowhere, scratching and squatting in the soft, newly planted earth, and my father throws clumps of dug-up dandelions at them. “Dad-ratted cats,” he says.
The buds turn yellow, the skipping ropes come out. We stand in Grace’s driveway, beside her dark pink crab apple tree. I turn the rope, Carol turns the other end, Grace and Cordelia skip. We look like girls playing.
Not last night but the night before
Twenty-four robbers come to my back door
And this is what they said…to…me!
Lady turn around, turn around, turn around,
Lady touch the ground, touch the ground, touch the ground;
Lady show your shoe, show your shoe, show your shoe,
Lady, lady, twenty-four skiddoo!
Grace, skipping in the middle, turns around, touches the driveway, kicks up one foot sedately, smiling her little smile. She rarely trips.
This chant is menacing to me. It hints at an obscure dirtiness. Something is not understood: the robbers and their strange commands, the lady and her gyrations, the tricks she’s compelled to perform, like a trained dog. And what does “twenty-four skiddoo” mean, at the end of it? Is she scooted out the door of her house while the robbers remain inside, free to take anything they like, break anything, do whatever they want? Or is it the end of her altogether? I see her dangling from the crab apple tree, the skipping rope noosed around her neck. I am not sorry for her.
The sun shines, the marbles return, from wherever they’ve been all winter. The voices of the children rise in the schoolyard: purie, purie, bowlie, bowlie, two for one. They sound to me like ghosts, or like animals caught in a trap: thin wails of exhausted pain.
We cross the wooden bridge on the way home from school. I am walking behind the others. Through the broken boards I can see the ground below. I remember my brother burying his jar full of puries, of waterbabies and cat’s eyes, a long time ago, down there somewhere under the bridge. The jar is still there in the earth, shining in the dark, in secret. I think about myself going down there alone despite the sinister unseen men, digging up the treasure, having all that mystery in my hands. I could never find the jar, because I don’t have the map. But I like to think about things the others know nothing about. I retrieve my blue cat’s eye from where it’s been lying all winter in the corner of my bureau drawer. I examine it, holding it up so the sunlight burns through it. The eye part of it, inside its crystal sphere, is so blue, so pure. It’s like something frozen in the ice. I take it to school with me, in my pocket, but I don’t set it up to be shot at. I hold on to it, rolling it between my fingers.
“What’s that in your pocket?” says Cordelia.
“Nothing,” I say. “It’s only a marble.”
It’s marble season; everyone has marbles in their pockets. Cordelia lets it pass. She doesn’t know what power this cat’s eye has, to protect me. Sometimes when I have it with me I can see the way it sees. I can see people moving like bright animated dolls, their mouths opening and closing but no real words coming out. I can look at their shapes and sizes, their colors, without feeling anything else about them. I am alive in my eyes only.
We stay in the city later than we’ve ever stayed before. We stay until school ends for the summer and the daylight lasts past bedtime and wet heat descends over the streets like a steaming blanket. I drink grape Freshie, which does not taste like grapes but like something you might use to kill insects, and wonder when we’re going to leave for the north. I tell myself it will be never, so I won’t be disappointed. But despite my cat’s eye I know I can’t stand to be here in this place much longer. I will burst inward. I’ve read in the National Geographic about deepsea diving and why you have to wear a thick metal suit or the invisible pressure of the heavy undersea water will crush you like mud in a fist, until you implode. This is the word: implode. It has a dull final sound to it, like a lead door closing. I sit in the car, packed into the back seat like a parcel. Grace and Cordelia and Carol are standing among the apple trees, watching. I hunch down, avoiding them. I don’t want to pretend, to undergo goodbyes. As the car moves away they wave.
We drive north. Toronto is behind us, a smear of brownish air on the horizon, like smoke from a distant burning. Only now do I turn and look.
The leaves get smaller and yellower, folding back toward the bud, and the air crisps. I see a raven by the side of the road, picking at a porcupine that’s been run over by a car, its quills like a huge burr, its guts pink and scrambled like eggs. I see the northern granite rock rising straight up out of the ground with the road cut through it. I see a raggedy lake with dead trees stuck into the marsh around the edges. A sawdust burner, a fire tower.
Three Indians stand beside the road. They aren’t selling anything, no baskets and it’s too early for blueberries. They just stand there as if they’ve been doing it for a long time. They’re familiar to me but only as scenery. Do they see me as I stare at them out of the car window? Probably not. I’m a blur to them, one more face in a car that doesn’t stop. I have no claim on them, or on any of this. I sit in the back seat of the car that smells of gasoline and cheese, waiting for my parents, who are buying groceries. The car is beside a wooden general store, saggy and weathered gray, stuck together by the signs nailed all over the outside of it: BLACK CAT CIGARETTES, PLAYERS, COCA-COLA. This isn’t even a village, just a wide place in the highway, beside a bridge beside a river. Once I would have wanted to know the river’s name. Stephen stands on the bridge, dropping pieces of wood upstream, timing how long it takes them to come out the other side, calculating the rate of flow. The blackflies are out. Some of them are in the car, crawling up the window, jumping, crawling up again. I watch them do this: I can see their hunched backs, their abdomens like little black-red bulbs. I squash them against the glass, leaving red smears of my own blood.
I’ve begun to feel not gladness, but relief. My throat is no longer tight, I’ve stopped clenching my teeth, the skin on my feet has begun to grow back, my fingers have healed partially. I can walk without seeing how I look from the back, talk without hearing the way I sound. I go for long periods without saying anything at all. I can be free of words now, I can lapse back into wordlessness, I can sink back into the rhythms of transience as if into bed.
This summer we’re in a rented cabin on the north shore of Lake Superior. There are a few other cottages around, most of them empty; there are no other children. The lake is huge and cold and blue and treacherous. It can sink freighters, drown people. In a wind the waves roll in with the crash of oceans. Swimming in it doesn’t frighten me at all. I wade into the freezing water, watching my feet and then my legs go down into it, long and white and thinner than on land.
There’s a wide beach, and to one end of it a colony of boulders. I spend time among them. They’re rounded, like seals, only hard; they heat up in the sun, and stay warm in the evening when the air cools. I take pictures of them with my Brownie camera. I give them the names of cows. Above the beach, on the dunes, there are beach plants, fuzzy mulleins and vetch with its purple flowers and tiny bitter peapods, and grasses that will cut your legs; and behind that the forest, oak and moose maple and birch and poplar, with balsam and spruce among them. There’s poison ivy sometimes. It’s a secretive, watchful forest, though hard to get lost in, so close to the shore. Walking in the forest I find a dead raven. It’s bigger than they look alive. I poke it with a stick, turning it over, and see the maggots. It smells like rot, like rust, and, more strangely, like some sort of food I’ve eaten once but can’t remember. It’s black, but not like a color; more like a hole. Its beak is dingy, horn-colored, like old toenails. Its eyes are shriveled up.
I’ve seen dead animals before, dead frogs, dead rabbits, but this raven is deader. It looks at me with its shriveled-up eye. I could poke this stick right through it. No matter what I do to it, it won’t feel a thing. No one can get at it.
It’s hard to fish from the shore of this lake. There’s nowhere to stand, no dock. We aren’t allowed out in a boat by ourselves because of the currents; anyway we have no boat. Stephen is doing other things. He makes a collection of the boat funnels from the lake freighters, checking them through binoculars. He sets up chess problems and works them out, or splits kindling, or goes for long walks by himself with a butterfly book. He isn’t interested in catching the butterflies and mounting them on a board with pins; he just wants to see them, identify them, count them. He writes them down in a list at the back of the book. I like looking at the pictures of butterflies in his book. My favorite is the luna moth, huge and pale green, with crescents on the wings. My brother finds one of these, and shows it to me. “Don’t touch it,” he says.
“Or the dust will come off its wings, and then it can’t fly.”
But I don’t play chess with him. I don’t start my own list of boat funnels or butterflies. I’m ceasing to be interested in games I can’t win.
Along the edges of the forest, where there’s open sunlight, there are chokecherry trees. The red chokecherries ripen and turn translucent. They’re so sour they dry up the inside of your mouth. I pick them into a lard pail, then sort out the dead twigs and leaves, and my mother makes jelly from them, boiling them up, straining the pits out through a cloth jelly bag, adding sugar. She pours the jelly into hot jars, capping them with paraffin wax. I count the beautiful red jars. I helped make them. They look poisonous.
As if I’ve been given permission I begin to dream. My dreams are brightly colored and without sound. I dream that the dead raven is alive, only it looks the same, it still looks dead. It hops around and flaps its decaying wings and I wake up, my heart beating fast.
I dream I’m putting on my winter clothes, in Toronto, but my dress doesn’t fit. I pull it on over my head and struggle to get my arms into the sleeves. I’m walking along the street and parts of my body are sticking out through the dress, parts of my bare skin. I am ashamed.
I dream that my blue cat’s eye is shining in the sky like the sun, or like the pictures of planets in our book on the solar system. But instead of being warm, it’s cold. It starts to move nearer, but it doesn’t get any bigger. It’s falling down out of the sky, straight toward my head, brilliant and glassy. It hits me, passes right into me, but without hurting, except that it’s cold. The cold wakes me up. My blankets are on the floor.
I dream that the wooden bridge over the ravine is falling apart. I’m standing on it, the boards crack and separate, the bridge sways. I walk along what’s left, clinging to the railing, but I can’t get onto the hill where the other people are standing because the bridge isn’t attached to anything. My mother is on the hill, but she’s talking to the other people.
I dream I’m picking the chokecherries off the chokecherry tree and putting them into the lard pail. Only they aren’t chokecherries. They’re deadly nightshade berries, translucent, brilliantly red. They’re filled with blood, like the bodies of blackflies. As I touch them they burst, and the blood runs over my hands. None of my dreams is about Cordelia.
Our father plays touch tag with us on the beach in the evenings, running lumberingly like a bear, laughing at the same time, wuff wuff wuff. Pennies and dimes fall out of his pockets into the sand. The lake boats go slowly by in the distance, their smoke trailing behind them, the sun sets to the left, pink and tranquil. I look in the mirror over the washbasin: my face is brown and rounder. My mother smiles at me, in the little kitchen with the woodstove, and hugs me with one arm. She thinks I am happy. Some nights we have marshmallows, for a treat.
Six – Cat’s Eye
S impsons Basement used to be bargain clothes and wrenches. Now it’s resplendent. There are pyramids of imported chocolates, an ice cream counter, aisles and aisles of fancy cookies and canned gourmet food, ticking away like little clocks toward the obsolescence dates stamped on their packages. There’s even an espresso counter. It’s all very world-class down here, where I used to buy cheap nighties in high school with my tiny clothes allowance, on sale at that and a size too large. I’m overwhelmed by all the chocolates. Just looking at them reminds me of Christmas and the sticky feeling after eating too many, the surfeit and glut.
I sit at the espresso counter and have a cappuccino, to deal with the inertia that’s come over me at the sight of so much sugar-coated self-indulgence. The espresso counter is either fake or real dark-green marble; it has a cute canopy over it, someone’s idea of Italy, and little swivel stools. The view from here is the shoe repair counter, which is not very world-class but is reassuring to me. People still get their shoes repaired, despite all this chocolate, they don’t just toss them out at the first hint of wear. I think about the shoes of my childhood, the brown Oxfords scuffed at the toes, half-soled, new-heeled, the falling-apart grubby white running shoes, the brown sandals with two buckles that you wore with socks. Most shoes were brown. They went with the pot roast done in the pressure cooker along with the limp carrots and the flaccid potatoes and the onions with their slippery layers. The pressure cooker had a whistle-shaped thing on the top. If you forgot to pay attention to it the lid would blow off like a bomb, and the carrots and potatoes would be hurled to the ceiling, where they’d stick like mush. This happened to my mother once. Luckily she was not in the kitchen at the time and was not scalded. When she saw what had happened she did not swear. She laughed, and said, “Wouldn’t that take the gold-plated gingerbread.”
My mother did most of the cooking but it was not her favorite thing. She was not fond of housework generally. In the steamer trunk in the cellar, along with a cut-velvet evening gown from the twenties and a pair of riding jodhpurs, there were several things made of real silver, ornate salt and pepper shakers, sugar tongs in the shape of chickens’ feet, rose bowls lavish with silver flowers. They were down there, wrapped in tissue paper and turning black, because otherwise they would have to be polished. Our knives and forks and spoons had to be polished, with an old toothbrush for the decorations. The scrolled legs under the dining table were dust catchers, and so were the kinds of objects—doodads, my mother called them—other people kept on their mantelpieces. But she liked making cakes, though this may only be something I prefer to think.
What would I have done if I had been my mother? She must have realized what was happening to me, or that something was. Even toward the beginning she must have noted my silences, my bitten fingers, the dark scabs on my lips where I’d pulled off patches of the skin. If it were happening now, to a child of my own, I would know what to do. But then? There were fewer choices, and a great deal less was said. I once did a series about my mother. It was six images, six panels, like a double triptych or a comic book, arranged in two groups, three on top, three underneath. The first was my mother in colored pencil, in her city house kitchen and her late-forties dress. Even she had a bib apron, blue flowers with navy piping, even she wore it, from time to time. The second image was the same figure in collage, made from the illustrations from old Ladies’ Home Journals and Chatelaines, not the photos but the artwork, with those rancid greens and faded blues and dirty-looking pinks. The third was the same figure, white on white, the raised parts pipe cleaners contoured side by side and glued onto a white cloth-covered backing. Reading across from left to right it looked as if my mother was slowly dissolving, from real life into a Babylonian bas-relief shadow.
The bottom set of images went the other way: first the pipe-cleaners, then the same image in collage, then the final one in full-colored realistic detail But this time my mother was in her slacks and boots and her man’s jacket, making chokecherry jam over the outdoor fire. You could read it as a materialization, out of the white pipe cleaner mist into the solid light of day.
I called the whole series Pressure Cooker. Because of when it was done and what was going on in those years, some people thought it was about the Earth Goddess, which I found hilarious in view of my mother’s dislike of housework. Other people thought it was about female slavery, others that it was a stereotyping of women in negative and trivial domestic roles. But it was only my mother cooking, in the ways and places she used to cook, in the late forties.
I made this right after she died. I suppose I wanted to bring her back to life. I suppose I wanted her timeless, though there is no such thing on earth. These pictures of her, like everything else, are drenched in time.
I finish my cappuccino, pay for it, leave a tip for the imitation Italian waiter who served it to me. I know I won’t buy any food in the food hall, I’m too intimidated by it. Ordinarily, or in some other city, I would not be: I am a grown-up and used to shopping. But how could I find, down here, anything I want right now? I’ll stop in at some corner store on the way back, some place where they sell milk till midnight and slightly stale sliced white bread. Such stores are run, now, by people the color of Mr. Banerji, or by Chinese people. They aren’t necessarily any friendlier than the pasty-white people who used to run such stores, but the general content of their disapproval is more easily guessed; though not the details. I head back up the escalator, into the perfumed fug of the ground floor. The air is bad here, there’s too much musk, the overpowering scent of money. I make it into the open air and walk west, past the murderous mannequins in the windows, past the bivalvular City Hall.
Ahead of me there’s a body lying on the sidewalk. People walk around it, look down, look away, keep going. I see their faces coming toward me bearing that careful rearrangement of the features that’s meant to say, This is none of my business.
When I get up even, I see that this person is a woman. She’s lying on her back, staring straight at me.
“Lady,” she says. “Lady. Lady.”
That word has been through a lot. Noble lady, Dark Lady, she’s a real lady, old-lady lace, Listen lady, Hey lady watch where you’re going, Ladies’ Room, run through with lipstick and replaced with Women. But still the final word of appeal. If you want something very badly you do not say Woman, Woman, you say Lady, Lady. As she is saying now.
I think, What if she’s bad a heart attack? I look: there’s blood on her forehead, not much, but a cut. She must have hit her head falling. And no one’s stopping, and she’s lying there on her back, a bulky fifty-odd woman in a poor-person green coat, gabardine, and lamentable shoes all cracked, her arms outflung. The tanned-looking skin around her brown eyes is red and puffy, her long black and gray hair is splayed across the sidewalk.
“Lady,” she says, or something, it’s a mumble, but she’s got me now.
I look over my shoulder to see if anyone else will do this, but there are no takers. I kneel, say to her,
“Are you all right?” What a stupid question, she so obviously isn’t. Vomit and alcohol are around here somewhere. I have visions of myself taking her for coffee, and then where? I won’t be able to get rid of her, she’ll follow me back to the studio, throw up in the bathtub, sleep on the futon. They get me every time, they can spot me coming, pick me out of the crowd no matter how hard I frown. Sidewalk rap artists, Moonies, guitar-playing young men who ask me for subway tokens. In the clutch of the helpless I am helpless.
“She’s only drunk,” a man says in passing. What does he mean, only? It’s hell enough.
“Here,” I say, “I’ll help you up.” Wimp, I tell myself. She’ll ask you for money and you’ll give it to her, and she’ll spend it on cheap sweet wine. But I have her on her feet now, she’s slumped against me. If I can lug her over to the nearest wall I can prop her up, dust her off a little, think how to get away.
“There,” I say. But she won’t lean against the wall, she’s leaning against me instead. Her breath smells like a bad accident. She’s crying now, the shameless abandoned weeping of a child; her fingers clutch my sleeve.
“Don’t leave me,” she says. “Oh God. Don’t leave me all alone.” Her eyes are closed, her voice is pure neediness, pure woe. It hits the weakest, most sorrowing part of me; but I am only a surrogate, for who knows what lack, what loss. There’s nothing I can do.
“Here,” I say. I fumble in my purse, find a ten, crumple it into her hand, paying her off. I’m a sucker, I’m a bleeding heart. There’s a cut in my heart, it bleeds money.
“Bless you,” she says. Her head rolls from side to side, back against the wall. “God bless you lady, Our Lady bless you.” It’s a slurred blessing, but who’s to say I don’t need it? She must be a Catholic. I could find a church, slide her in through the door like a packet. She’s theirs, let them deal with her.
“I have to go now,” I say. “You’ll be all right.” Lying through my teeth. She opens her eyes wide, trying to focus. Her face goes quiet.
“I know about you,” she says. “You’re Our Lady and you don’t love me.”
Full-blown booze madness, and absolutely the wrong person. I draw my hand back from her as if she’s a live socket. “No,” I say. She’s right, I don’t love her. Her eyes are not brown but green. Cordelia’s. I walk away from her, guilt on my hands, absolving myself: I’m a good person. She could have been dying. Nobody else stopped.
I’m a fool, to confuse this with goodness. I am not good.
I know too much to be good. I know myself.
I know myself to be vengeful, greedy, secretive and sly.
W e come back in September. In the north the nights are cold and the leaves are beginning to turn, but the city is still hot, still damp. It’s astonishingly noisy and stinks of gasoline and the tar of melting roads. The air inside our house is stale and flat, air that’s been locked up in the heat all summer. The water’s rusty at first, coming out of the taps. I take a bath in the reddish lukewarm water. Already my body is stiffening, emptying itself of feeling. The future is closing on me like a door.
Cordelia has been waiting for me. I know this as soon as I see her standing at the school bus stop. Before the summer she would alternate between kindness and malice, with periods of indifference; but now she’s harsher, more relentless. It’s as if she’s driven by the urge to see how far she can go. She’s backing me toward an edge, like the edge of a cliff: one step back, another step, and I’ll be over and falling.
Carol and I are in Grade Five now. We have a new teacher, Miss Stuart. She’s Scottish and has an accent. “Now gerruls,” she says. She has a little bunch of dried heather stuck into a jelly jar on her desk, and a miniature of Bonnie Prince Charlie who was ruined by the English and whose last name is the same as her own, and a bottle of hand lotion in her desk drawer. She cooks this hand lotion herself. In the afternoons she makes herself a cup of tea, which does not smell entirely like tea but of something else she puts into it, out of a small silver bottle. She has bluish-white hair, beautifully waved, and wears rustling, silky mauve dresses with a lace-edged handkerchief tucked into the sleeve. She often has a nurse’s white gauze mask over her nose and mouth because she’s allergic to chalk dust. This doesn’t stop her from throwing the blackboard brushes at boys who aren’t paying attention. Although she throws underhand and not hard, she never misses. After she hits the boy he has to bring the blackboard brush back to her. The boys don’t seem to resent this habit of hers; they take it as a mark of distinction to get hit.
Everyone loves Miss Stuart. Carol says we are lucky to be in her class. I would love her too, if I had the energy. But I am too numb, too enthralled.
I keep my cat’s eye in my pocket, where I can hold on to it. It rests in my hand, valuable as a jewel, looking out through bone and cloth with its impartial gaze. With the help of its power I retreat back into my eyes. Up ahead of me are Cordelia, Grace, and Carol. I look at their shapes as they walk, the way shadow moves from one leg to another, the blocks of color, a red square of cardigan, a blue triangle of skirt. They’re like puppets up ahead, small and clear. I could see them or not, at will. I reach the path to the bridge, start down, past the nightshade vines with their red berries, past the undulating leaves, the lurking cats. The three of them are already on the bridge but they’ve stopped, they’re waiting for me. I look at the ovals of their faces, the outline of hair around each one. Their faces are like moldy eggs. My feet move down the hill.
I think about becoming invisible. I think about eating the deadly nightshade berries from the bushes beside the path. I think about drinking the Javex out of the skull and crossbones bottle in the laundry room, about jumping off the bridge, smashing down there like a pumpkin, half of an eye, half of a grin. I would come apart like that, I would be dead, like the dead people.
I don’t want to do these things, I’m afraid of them. But I think about Cordelia telling me to do them, not in her scornful voice, in her kind one. I hear her kind voice inside my head. Do it. Come on. I would be doing these things to please her.
I consider telling my brother, asking him for help. But tell him what exactly? I have no black eyes, no bloody noses to report: Cordelia does nothing physical. If it was boys, chasing or teasing, he would know what to do, but I don’t suffer from boys in this way. Against girls and their indirectness, their whisperings, he would be helpless.
Also I’m ashamed. I’m afraid he’ll laugh at me, he’ll despise me for being, a sissy about a bunch of girls, for making a fuss about nothing.
I’m in the kitchen, greasing muffin tins for my mother. I see the patterns the grease leaves on the metal, I see the moons of my nails, the raggedy flesh. My fingers go around and around. My mother makes the batter for the muffins, measuring the salt, sifting the flour. The sifter sounds dry, like sandpaper. “You don’t have to play with them,” my mother says. “There must be other little girls you can play with instead.”
I look at her. Misery washes over me like a slow wind. What has she noticed, what has she guessed, what is she about to do? She might tell their mothers. This would be the worst thing she could do. Also I can’t imagine it. My mother is not like the other mothers, she doesn’t fit in with the idea of them. She does not inhabit the house, the way the other mothers do; she’s airy and hard to pin down. The others don’t go skating on the neighborhood rink, or walk in the ravine by themselves. They seem to me grown-up in a way that my own mother is not. I think of Carol’s mother in her twin set, her skeptical smile, Cordelia’s with her glasses on a chain and her vagueness, Grace’s and her hairpins and drooping apron. My mother will turn up on their doorsteps, wearing slacks, carrying a bouquet of weeds, incongruous. They won’t believe her.
“When I was little and the kids called names, we used to say, ”Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me,“” she says. Her arm goes vigorously around, mixing, efficient and strong.
“They don’t call me names,” I say. “They’re my friends.” I believe this.
“You have to learn to stand up for yourself,” says my mother. “Don’t let them push you around. Don’t be spineless. You have to have more backbone.” She dollops the batter into the tins. I think of sardines and their backbones. You can eat their backbones. The bones crumble between your teeth; one touch and they fall apart. This must be what my own backbone is like: hardly there at all. What is happening to me is my own fault, for not having more backbone.
My mother sets down the bowl and puts her arms around me. “I wish I knew what to do,” she says. This is a confession. Now I know what I’ve been suspecting: as far as this thing is concerned, she is powerless.
I know that muffins have to be baked right away, right after they’ve been ladled out, or they’ll be flat and ruined. I can’t afford the distraction of comfort. If I give in to it, what little backbone I have left will crumble away to nothing.
I pull away from her. “They need to go into the oven,” I say.
C ordelia brings a mirror to school. It’s a pocket mirror, the small plain oblong kind without any rim. She takes it out of her pocket and holds the mirror up in front of me and says, “Look at yourself! Just look!”
Her voice is disgusted, fed up, as if my face, all by itself, has been up to something, has gone too far. I look into the mirror but I don’t see anything out of the ordinary. It’s just my face, with the dark blotches on the lips where I’ve bitten off the skin.
My parents have bridge parties. They push the furniture in the living room to the walls and unfold two metal bridge tables and eight bridge chairs. In the middle of each table there are two china dishes, one with salted nuts, the other with mixed candies. These candies are called “bridge mixture.” There are also two ashtrays on each table.
Then the doorbell begins to ring and the people come in. The house fills with the alien scent of cigarettes, which will still be there in the morning along with a few uneaten candies and salted nuts, and with bursts of laughter that get louder as time passes. I lie in my bed listening to the bursts of laughter. I feel isolated, left out. Also I don’t understand why this activity, these noises and smells, is called “bridge.” It is not like a bridge.
Sometimes Mr. Banerji comes to these bridge parties. I lurk in the corner of the hallway in my flannelette pajamas, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. I don’t have a crush on him or anything like that. My wish to see him is anxiety, and fellow feeling. I want to see how he is managing, how he is coping with his life, with having to eat turkeys, and with other things. Not very well, judging from his dark, haunted-looking eyes and slightly hysterical laughter. But if he can deal with whatever it is that’s after him, and something is, then so can I. Or this is what I think.
Princess Elizabeth is coming to Toronto. She’s visiting Canada with her husband, who is a Duke. It’s a Royal Visit. On the radio there are cheering crowds, and solemn voices describing what color she’s wearing, a different color every day. I crouch on the living room floor with the Maritimes fiddle music going on in the background, the Toronto Star spread out underneath my elbows, studying the picture of her on the front page. She’s older than she should be and more ordinary: no longer in a Girl Guide uniform as in the days of the Blitz, but not in an evening gown and a tiara either, like the Queen at the back of the classroom. She’s wearing a plain suit and gloves and carrying a handbag, like anyone, and she has on a ladies’ hat. But still she’s a Princess. On the inside of the paper there’s a full page of her, with women curtsying to her, little girls presenting bouquets of flowers. She smiles down upon them, always the same benevolent smile, and is described as radiant.
Day after day, crouching on the floor, turning the pages of the newspapers, I watch her make her way across the map, by plane, by train, by car, from city to city. I memorize the diagrams of her proposed route through Toronto. I’ll get a good chance to see her, because she’s supposed to drive right by our house, along the raw, potholed road that runs between the cemetery, with its spindly new trees and heaps of bulldozed earth, and the line of five new mud mountains.
The mud mountains are on our side of the road. They have recently appeared, replacing the strip of weedy field that used to be there before. Each mountain stands beside its own hole, roughly cellar-shaped, with a slop of muddy water at the bottom. My brother has claimed one of them for his own; he plans to excavate it, tunneling down from the top, then in from the side to make a side entrance. What he wishes to do in there is unknown.
I don’t know why the Princess is going to be driven past these mud mountains. I don’t think of them as anything she would necessarily want to see, but I’m not sure, because she’s seeing a lot of other things that don’t seem to be of more interest. There’s a picture of her outside a city hall, another beside a fish-canning factory. But whether she wants to see them or not, the mud mountains will be a good place to stand.
I am looking forward to this visit. I expect something from it, although I’m not sure what. This is the same Princess that defied the bombs in London, the one that is brave and heroic. I think something will happen for me on that day. Something will change.
The Royal Visit finally reaches Toronto. The day is overcast, with pinpoints of rain; spitting, they call it. I go out early and stand on the top of the middle mud mountain. There’s a straggly line of people, adults and children, along the roadside among the draggled weeds. Some of the children have small Union Jacks. I have one as well: they were handed out at school. There’s not much of a crowd, because not that many people live around here and some of them have probably gone farther downtown, to where there are sidewalks. I can see Grace and Carol and Cordelia, along the road towards Grace’s house. I hope they will not see me.
I stand on the mud mountain with my Union Jack hanging slack from its stick. It gets later and nothing happens. I think maybe I should go back to our house and listen to the radio, to see how far away the Princess is, but suddenly there’s a police car, to the left, coming along by the cemetery. It begins to drizzle. In the distance there’s cheering.
There are some motorcycles, then some cars. I can see the arms of the people along the road going up into the air, hear scattered hoorays. The cars are going too fast, despite the potholes. I can’t see which car is the right one.
Then I do see. It’s the car with the pale glove coming out the window, waving back and forth. Already it’s opposite me, already it’s passing. I don’t wave my Union Jack or cheer, because I see that it’s too late, I won’t have time for what I’ve been waiting for, which has only now become clear to me. What I must do is run down the mountain with my arms stretched out to either side, for balance, and throw myself in front of the Princess’s car. In front of it, or onto it, or into it. Then the Princess will tell them to stop the car. She’ll have to, in order to avoid running over me. I don’t picture myself being driven away in the royal car, I’m more realistic than that. Anyway I don’t want to leave my parents. But things will change, they will be different, something will be done.
The car with the glove is moving away, it’s turned the corner, it’s gone, and I haven’t moved.
Mi ss Stuart likes art. She has us bring old shirts of our fathers from home so we can do messier art without getting our clothes dirty. While we scissor and paint and paste she walks the aisles in her nurse’s mask, looking over our shoulders. But if anyone, a boy, draws a silly picture on purpose, she holds the page up in mocking outrage. “This lad here thinks he’s being smarrut. You’ve got more between the ears than that!” And she flicks him on the ear with her thumb and fingernail. For her we make the familiar paper objects, the pumpkins, the Christmas bells, but she has us do other things too. We make complicated floral patterns with a compass, we glue odd substances to cardboard backings: feathers, sequins, pieces of macaroni garishly dyed, lengths of drinking straw. We do group murals on the blackboards or on large rolls of brown paper. We draw pictures about foreign countries: Mexico with cactuses and men in enormous hats, China with cones on the heads and seeing-eye boats, India with what we intend to be graceful, silk-draped women balancing copper urns, and jewels on their foreheads.
I like these foreign pictures because I can believe in them. I desperately need to believe that somewhere else these other, foreign people exist. No matter that at Sunday school I’ve been told such people are either starving or heathens or both. No matter that my weekly collection goes to convert them, feed them, smarten them up. Miss Lumley saw them as crafty, given to the eating of outlandish or disgusting foods and to acts of treachery against the British, but I prefer Miss Stuart’s versions, in which the sun above their heads is a cheerful yellow, the palm trees a clearg reen, the clothing they wear is floral, their folksongs gay. The women chatter together in quick incomprehensible languages, they laugh, showing perfect, pure-white teeth. If these people exist I can go there sometime. I don’t have to stay here. Today, says Miss Stuart, we are going to draw what we do after school. The others hunch over their desks. I know what they will draw: skipping ropes, jolly snowmen, listening to the radio, playing with a dog. I stare at my own paper, which remains blank. Finally I draw my bed, with myself in it. My bed has a dark wooden headboard with curlicues on it. I draw the window, the chest of drawers. I color in the night. My hand holding the black crayon presses down, harder and harder, until the picture is almost entirely black, until only a faint shadow of my bed and my head on the pillow remains to be seen.
I look at this picture with dismay. It isn’t what I meant to draw. It’s unlike everyone else’s picture, it’s the wrong thing. Miss Stuart will be disappointed in me, she’ll tell me I have more between the ears than that. I can feel her standing behind me now, looking over my shoulder; I can smell her smell of hand lotion, and the other smell that is not tea. She moves around so I can see her, her bright blue wrinkly eyes looking at me over the top of her nurse’s mask.
For a moment she says nothing. Then she says, not harshly, “Why is your picture so darruk, my dear?”
“Because it’s night,” I say. This is an idiotic answer, I know that as soon as it’s out of my mouth. My voice is almost inaudible, even to me.
“I see,” she says. She doesn’t say I’ve drawn the wrong thing, or that surely there’s something else I do after school besides going to bed. She touches me on the shoulder, briefly, before continuing down the aisle. Her touch glows briefly, like a blown-out match.
In the schoolroom windows the paper hearts are blossoming. We make a huge Valentine’s Day postbox out of a cardboard box covered with pink crepe paper and red hearts with paper doily edging. Into the slot at the top we slip our valentines, cut from books of them you can buy at Woolworth’s, with special, single ones for the people we especially like.
On the day itself the whole afternoon is a party. Miss Stuart loves parties: She’s brought dozens of heart-shaped shortbread cookies she’s made herself, with pink icing and silver balls on them, and there are tiny cinnamon hearts and pastel hearts with messages on them, messages from some earlier era which is not ours. “Hubba Hubba,” they say. “She’s My Baby.” “Oh You Kid!”
Miss Stuart sits at her desk, supervising, while several girls open the box and deliver the valentines. On my desk the cards pile up. Most of them are from boys. I can tell this because of the sloppy writing, and because a lot of them aren’t signed. Others have only initials or Guess Who? Some have x’s and o’s. The cards from girls are all neatly signed, with their full names, so there will be no mistake about who gave what.
On the way home from school Carol giggles and shows off her cards from boys. I have more cards from boys than Carol has, more than Cordelia and Grace have collected in their Grade Six classroom. Only I know this. I’ve hidden the cards in my desk so they won’t be seen on the way home. When questioned I say I didn’t get many. I hug my knowledge, which is new but doesn’t surprise me: boys are my secret allies.
Carol is only ten and three quarters but she’s growing breasts. They aren’t very big, but the nipples are no longer flat, they’re pointed, and there’s a swelling behind them. It’s easy to see this because she sticks out her chest, she wears sweaters, pulling them down tightly so the breasts poke out. She complains about these breasts at recess: they hurt, she says. She says she will have to get a bra. Cordelia says, “Oh shut up about your stupid tits.” She’s older, but she doesn’t have any yet. Carol pinches her lips and cheeks to make them red. She finds a worn-down tube of lipstick in her mother’s wastepaper basket and hides it away, and takes it to school in her pocket. Using the tip of her little finger, she rubs some of it on her lips after school. She wipes it off with a Kleenex before we get to her house but she doesn’t do a good enough job.
We play upstairs in her room. When we go down to the kitchen for a glass of milk, her mother says,
“What’s that on your face, young lady?” Right in front of us she scrubs Carol’s face with the dirty dishcloth. “Don’t let me catch you doing such a cheap thing again! At your age, the idea!” Carol wriggles, cries and screams, abandoning herself. We watch, horrified and thrilled. “Just wait till your father gets home!” her mother says in a cold, furious voice. “Making a spectacle of yourself,” as if there’s something wrong in the mere act of being looked at. Then she remembers we’re still here. “Off you go!”
Two days later Carol says her father has given it to her good, with his belt, buckle end, right across the bare bum. She says she can hardly sit down. She sounds proud of this. She shows us, after school, up in her room: she pulls up her skirt, pulls down her underpants, and sure enough there are the marks, almost like scratch marks, not very red but there.
It’s difficult to match this evidence with Carol’s father, nice Mr. Campbell, who has a soft mustache and calls Grace Beautiful Brown Eyes and Cordelia Miss Lobelia. It’s strange to imagine him hitting anyone with a belt. But fathers and their ways are enigmatic. I know without being told, for instance, that Mr. Smeath lives a secret life of trains and escapes in his head. Cordelia’s father is charming to us on the rare occasions when he is seen, he makes wry jokes, his smile is like a billboard, but why is she afraid of him?
Because she is. All fathers except mine are invisible in daytime; daytime is ruled by mothers. But fathers come out at night. Darkness brings home the fathers, with their real, unspeakable power. There is more to them than meets the eye. And so we believe the belt.
Carol says she’s seen a wet spot on the sheet of her mother’s twin bed, in the morning, before the bed was made. We tiptoe into her parents’ room. The bed with its tufty chenille bedspread is so neatly made up we’re afraid to turn down the covers to look. Carol opens the drawer of her mother’s bedside table and we peer in. There’s a rubber thing like the top of a mushroom, and a tube of toothpaste that isn’t toothpaste. Carol says these things are to keep you from having babies. Nobody giggles, nobody scoffs. Instead we read the label. Somehow the red marks on Carol’s, bum have given her a credibility she lacked before.
Carol lies on top of her own bed, which has a white ruffled spread that matches the curtains. She’s pretending to be sick, with an unspecified illness. We’ve dampened a washcloth, draped it over her forehead, brought her a glass of water. Illness is now a game we play.
“Oh, I’m so sick, oh, I’m so sick,” Carol moans, twisting her body on the bed. “Nurse, do something!”
“We have to listen to her heart,” says Cordelia. She pulls up Carol’s sweater, then her undershirt. We’ve all been to the doctor, we know about the brusque humiliations involved. “This won’t hurt.” There are the breasts, puffy-looking, their nipples bluish, like veins on a forehead. “Feel her heart,” Cordelia says to me.
I don’t want to. I don’t want to touch that swollen, unnatural flesh. “Go on,” says Cordelia. “Do as you’re told.”
“She’s being disobedient,” says Grace.
I reach out my hand, place it on the left breast. It feels like a balloon half filled with water, or like lukewarm oatmeal porridge. Carol giggles. “Oh, your hand’s so cold!” Nausea grips me.
“Her heart, stupid,” says Cordelia. “I didn’t say her tit. Don’t you know the difference?”
An ambulance comes and my mother is carried out to it on a stretcher. I don’t see this, Stephen tells me about it. It was in the middle of the night when I was asleep, but Stephen has taken to getting up secretly and looking out of his bedroom window at the stars. He says you can see the stars much better when most of the lights in the city are off. He says that the way to wake up at night without using an alarm clock is to drink two glasses of water before you go to bed. Then you have to concentrate on the hour you want to wake up. This is what the Indians used to do.
So he was awake, and listened, and snuck across to the other side of the house to look out the window there, where he could see what was going on out on the street. He says there were flashing lights but no siren, so it’s no wonder I didn’t hear anything.
When I get up in the morning my father is in the kitchen frying bacon. He knows how to do this, though he never does it in the city, only over campfires. In my parents’ bedroom there’s a pile of crumpled sheets on the floor, and the blankets are folded up on a chair; on the mattress there’s a huge oval splotch of blood. But when I come home from school the sheets are gone and the bed is made up, and there is nothing more to be seen.
My father says there has been an accident. But how can you have an accident lying in bed asleep?
Stephen says it was a baby, a baby that came out too soon. I don’t believe him: women who are going to have babies have big fat stomachs, and my mother didn’t have one.
My mother comes back from the hospital and is weaker. She has to rest. No one is used to this, she isn’t used to it herself. She resists it, getting up as usual, putting her hand on the wall or on the edges of the furniture as she walks, standing hunched over at the kitchen sink, a cardigan over her shoulders. In the middle of something she’s doing she has to go and lie down. Her skin is pale and dry. She looks as if she’s listening to a sound, outside the house perhaps, but there is no sound. Sometimes I have to repeat things twice before she hears me. It’s as if she’s gone off somewhere else, leaving me behind; or forgotten I am there.
All of this is more frightening, even, than the splotch of blood. Our father tells us to help out more, which means that he’s frightened as well.
After she gets better I find a small knitted sock, pastel green, in my mother’s sewing basket. I wonder why she would have knitted only one sock. She doesn’t like knitting, so maybe she knitted one and then got tired of it.
I dream that Mrs. Finestein from next door and Mr. Banerji are my real parents. I dream that my mother has had a baby, one of a set of twins. The baby is gray. I don’t know where the other twin is.
I dream that our house has burned down. Nothing of it remains; blackened stumps dot the place where it’s been, as if there has been a forest fire. A huge mountain of mud rises beside it. My parents are dead but also alive. They’re lying side by side, in their summer clothes, and sinking down through the earth, which is hard but transparent, like ice. They look up at me sorrowfully as they recede.
I t’s Saturday afternoon. We’re going down to the building, to something called a Conversat. I don’t know what a Conversat is but I’m relieved to be going to the building, where there are mice and snakes and experiments and no girls. My father asked if I wanted to bring a friend. I said no. My brother is bringing Danny, whose nose runs all the time, who wears knitted vests in diamond patterns, who has a stamp collection. They sit in the back seat—my brother no longer gets carsick—and talk in pig Latin.
“Or-yay ose-nay is-ay unning-ray.”
“O-say ut-whay? Awnt-way oo-tay eat-ay ome-say?”
I know that some of this, at least on Danny’s part, is for my benefit. He has confused me with other girls, girls who wriggle and shriek. Once I would have replied with something equally disgusting, but I have lost interest in such things as eating snot. I look out the car window, pretending not to hear. The Conversat turns out to be sort of like a museum. The Zoology Department is throwing itself open to the public, to give people a crack at Science and improve their minds. This is what my father said, grinning the way he does when he’s partly joking. He said people’s minds could use some improving. My mother said she doesn’t think her mind is capable of further improvement, so she’s going grocery shopping instead.
There are a lot of people at the Conversat. There isn’t that much to do for entertainment on the weekends in Toronto. The building has a festive air: its usual smells of Dustbane and furniture polish and mouse droppings and snakes mingle with other smells, of winter clothing, cigarette smoke, and women’s perfume. Streamers of colored paper are taped to the walls, with arrows of construction paper at intervals, along the halls and up and down the stairs and into the different rooms, to show the way. Each room has its own displays, grouped according to what you are supposed to learn. In the first room there are chicken embryos at various stages of development, from a red dot to a big-headed, bulgy-eyed, pin-feathered chick, looking not fluffy and cute the way they do on Easter cards, but slimy, its claws curled under, its eyelids a slit open, showing a crescent of agate-blue eye. The embryos have been pickled; the scent of formaldehyde is very strong. In another display there’s a jar of twins, real dead identical human twins with their placenta attached, gray-skinned, floating in something that looks like dishwater. Their veins and arteries have been injected with colored rubber, blue for the veins, purple for the arteries, so we can see that their blood systems are connected. There’s a human brain in a bottle, like a giant flabby gray walnut. I can’t believe there is such a thing inside my head. In another room there’s a table where you can get your fingerprints taken, so you can see they aren’t the same as anyone else’s. There’s a large piece of Bristol board with enlarged photographs of people’s fingerprints pinned up on it. My brother and Danny and I all get our fingerprints taken. Danny and my brother have made light of the chickens and the twins—“Awnt-way any-nay icken-chay or-fay upper-say?” “Ow-hay about-way ome-say ewed-stay in-tway?”—but they weren’t in any hurry to stay in that room. Their enthusiasm for the fingerprints is boisterous. They make fingerprints in the centers of each other’s foreheads with their inky fingers, saying, “The Mark of the Black Hand!” in loud, ominous voices, until our father passes nearby and tells them to pipe down. Beautiful Mr. Banerji from India is with him. He smiles nervously at me and says, “How are you, miss?” He always calls me “miss.” Among all these winter-white faces he looks darker than usual; his teeth shine and shine. In the same room with the fingerprints they’re handing out pieces of paper; you’re supposed to taste them and say whether they taste bitter, like peach pits, or sour, like lemons. This proves that some things are inherited. There’s also a mirror where you can do tongue exercises, to see if you can roll your tongue up at the sides or into a cloverleaf shape. Some people can’t do either. Danny and my brother hog the mirror and make gruesome faces by sticking their thumbs into the sides of their mouths and pulling the edges of their eyelids down so that the red shows.
Some of the Conversat is less interesting, with too much writing, and some of it is only charts on the wall or looking through microscopes, which we can do whenever we want to anyway. It’s crowded as we shuffle along the halls, following the paper streamers, baby-blue and yellow, in our winter overshoes. We haven’t taken our coats off. It’s very warm. The clanking radiators are going full-blast, and the air is filling with other people’s breath.
We come to a room where there’s a cut-open turtle. It’s in a white enamel tray, like the ones in butcher shops. The turtle is alive; or it’s dead, but its heart is alive. This turtle is an experiment to show how the heart of a reptile can keep on going after the rest of it is dead.
The turtle’s bottom shell has a hole sawed into it. The turtle is on its back so you can see down into it, right to the heart, which is beating away slowly, glistening dark red down there in its cave, wincing like the end of a touched worm, lengthening again, wincing. It’s like a hand, clenching and unclenching. It’s like an eye.
They’ve attached a wire to the heart, which runs to a loudspeaker, so you can hear the heart beating throughout the entire room, agonizingly slow, like an old man walking up stairs. I can’t tell if the heart is going to make it to the next beat, or not. There’s a footstep, a pause, then a crackling like the kind of static on the radio that my brother says comes from outer space, then another pulse, a gasp of air sucked in. Life is flowing out of the turtle, I can hear it over the loudspeaker. Soon the turtle will be empty of life. I don’t want to stay in this room but there’s a lineup, in front of me and behind. All of the people are grown-ups; I’ve lost sight of Danny and my brother. I’m hemmed in by tweed coats, my eyes as high as their second buttons. I hear another sound, coming over the sound of the heart like an approaching wind: a rustling, like poplar leaves, only smaller, drier. There’s black around the edges of my eyes and it closes in. What I see is like the entrance to a tunnel, rushing away from me; or I am rushing away from it, away from that spot of daylight. After that I’m looking at a lot of overshoes, and the floorboards, stretching into the distance, at eye level. My head hurts.
“She fainted,” somebody says, and then I know what I have done.
“It must have been the heat.”
I am carried out into the cold gray air; it’s Mr. Banerji who carries me, making sounds of distress. My father hurries out and tells me to sit with my head down between my knees. I do this, looking at the tops of my overshoes. He asks if I’m going to be sick and I say no. My brother and Danny come out and stare at me, not saying anything. Finally my brother says, “Eee-shay ainted-fay,” and they go back in. I stay outside until my father brings the car around and we drive home. I’m beginning to feel that I’ve discovered something worth knowing. There’s a way out of places you want to leave, but can’t. Fainting is like stepping sideways, out of your own body, out of time or into another time. When you wake up it’s later. Time has gone on without you.
Cordelia says, “Think of ten stacks of plates. Those are your ten chances.” Every time I do something wrong, a stack of plates comes crashing down. I can see these plates. Cordelia can see them too, because she’s the one who says Crash! Grace can see them a little, but her crashes are tentative, she looks to Cordelia for confirmation. Carol tries a crash once or twice but is scoffed at: “That wasn’t a crash!”
“Only four left,” says Cordelia. “You better watch yourself. Well?”
I say nothing.
“Wipe that smirk off your face,” says Cordelia.
I say nothing.
“Crash!” says Cordelia. “Only three left.”
Nobody ever says what will happen if all of the stacks of plates fall down. I’m standing against the wall, near the GIRLS door, the cold creeping up my legs and in under the edges of my sleeves. I’m not supposed to move. Already I’ve forgotten why. I’ve discovered that I can fill my head up with music, Coming in on a wing and a prayer, Keep happy with the Happy Gang, and forget almost anything.
It’s recess. Miss Lumley patrols the playground with her brass bell, her face clamped against the cold, minding her own business. I’m still just as afraid of her, although she’s no longer my teacher. Chains of girls careen past, chanting We don’t stop for anybody. Other girls promenade more sedately, arms linked two by two. They look at me curiously, then away. It’s like the people in cars, on the highway, who slow down and look out the window when there’s a car accident by the side of the road. They slow down but they don’t stop. They know when there’s trouble, they know when to keep out of it. I’m standing a little out from the wall. I put my head back and stare up into the gray sky and hold my breath. I’m making myself dizzy. I can see a stack of plates as it sways, begin to topple over, into a silent explosion of china shards. The sky closes to a pinpoint and a wave of dry leaves sweeps over my head. Then I can see my own body lying on the ground, just lying there. I can see the girls pointing and gathering, I can see Miss Lumley stalking over, bending with difficulty to look at me. But I’m seeing all this from above, as if I’m in the air, somewhere near the GIRLS sign over the door, looking down like a bird.
I come to with Miss Lumley’s face looming inches away from me, scowling more than ever, as if I’ve made a mess, with a ring of girls around her jostling for a better look. There’s blood, I’ve cut my forehead. I am taken off to the nurse’s office. The nurse wipes off the blood and sticks a wad of gauze onto me with a Band-Aid. The sight of my own blood on the wet white washcloth is deeply satisfying to me.
Cordelia is subdued: blood is impressive, even more impressive than vomit. She and Grace are solicitous on the way home, linking their arms through mine, asking me how I feel. This kind of attention from them makes me tremulous. I’m afraid I will cry, great sopping tears of reconciliation. But I’m far too wary for that by now.
The next time Cordelia tells me to stand against the wall I faint again. Now I can do it almost whenever I want to. I hold my breath and hear the rustling noise and see the blackness and then I slip sideways, out of my body, and I’m somewhere else. But I can’t always watch from above, like the first time. Sometimes there’s just black.
I begin to be known as the girl who faints.
“She’s doing it on purpose,” Cordelia says. “Go ahead, let’s see you faint. Come on. Faint.” But now, when she tells me to, I can’t.
I begin to spend time outside my body without falling over. At these times I feel blurred, as if there are two of me, one superimposed on the other, but imperfectly. There’s an edge of transparency, and beside it a rim of solid flesh that’s without feeling, like a scar. I can see what’s happening, I can hear what’s being said to me, but I don’t have to pay any attention. My eyes are open but I’m not there. I’m off to the side.
Seven – Our Lady of Perpetual Help
I walk west from Simpsons, still looking for something to eat. Finally I buy a slice of take-out pizza and devour it en route, with my fingers, folding it in two and gnawing. When I’m with Ben I eat at regular times because he does, I eat regular things, but when I’m alone I indulge in junk food and scavenging, my old, singular ways. It’s bad for me, but I need to remember what bad for me is like. I could begin to take Ben for granted, with his ties and haircuts and grapefruits for breakfast. It makes me appreciate him more.
Back at the studio I call him, counting the hours backward to the coast. But there’s only my own voice on the message, followed by the beep, the Dominion Observatory Official Time Signal, ushering in the future. Love you, I say, so he can hear it later. Then I remember: by now he’s in Mexico, he won’t be back till I am.
By now it’s dark outside. I could go out for something more like dinner, or try for a movie. Instead I crawl onto the futon, under the duvet, with a cup of coffee and the Toronto phone book, and start looking up names. There are no more Smeaths, they must have moved or died off, or got married. There are more Campbells than you can shake a stick at. I look up Jon, whose name was once my own. No Josef Hrbik, though there are Hrbeks, Hrens, Hrastniks, Hriczus.
There are no more Risleys.
There is no Cordelia.
It’s strange to be lying in Jon’s bed again. I haven’t thought of this as Jon’s bed because I’ve never seen him in it, but of course it is. It’s a lot neater than his beds used to be, and a great deal cleaner. His first bed was a mattress on the floor, with an old sleeping bag on top of it. I didn’t mind this, in fact I liked it; it was like camping out. Usually there would be a tide line of empty cups and glasses and plates with scraps of food surrounding it, which I didn’t like as much. There was an etiquette about such messes, in those days: there was a line you crossed, from ignoring them to cleaning them up. Whether the man would think you were moving in on him, trying to take him over.
We were lying on that bed one time, right at the beginning, before I’d started to pick up the plates, when the bedroom door opened and a woman I’d never seen before appeared in the doorway. She was wearing dirty jeans and a wan pink T-shirt; her face thin and bleached-looking, with huge pupils. It looked as if she was on some sort of drug, which was beginning to be a possibility, then. She stood there saying nothing, one hand behind her back, her face tight and blank, while I pulled the sleeping bag up over me.
“Hey,” said Jon.
She drew her hand out from behind her back then and threw something at us. It was a paper bag full of warm spaghetti, sauce included. It burst when it hit, festooning us. She went out, still without saying anything, and slammed the door.
I was frightened, but Jon started laughing. “What was that?” I said. “How the hell did she get in?”
“Through the door,” said Jon, still laughing. He untangled a piece of spaghetti from my hair and leaned over to kiss me. I knew this woman must have been a girfriend, or an ex-girlfriend, and I was furious with her. It didn’t occur to me that she might have reason. I hadn’t yet encountered the foreign hairpins left in the bathroom like territorial dog pee on snowy hydrants, the lipstick marks placed strategically on pillows. Jon knew how to cover his tracks, and when he didn’t cover them it was for a reason. It didn’t occur to me either that she must have had a key.
“She’s crazy,” I said. “She should be in a bin.”
I did not pity her at all. In a way I admired her. I admired her lack of compunction, the courage of her bad manners, the energy of simple rage. Throwing a bag of spaghetti had a simplicity to it, a recklessness, a careless grandeur. It got things over with. I was a long way, then, from being able to do anything like it myself.
G race says grace. Mr. Smeath says, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition,” and reaches for the baked beans. Mrs. Smeath says, “Lloyd.” Mr. Smeath says, “It’s harmless,” and shoots me a sideways grin. Aunt Mildred contracts her whiskery mouth. I chew away at the rubber plant Smeath food. Under cover of the tablecloth, I tear at my fingers. Sunday goes on.
After the stewed pineapple Grace wants me to come down into the cellar with her to play school. I do this, but I have to come up the stairs again to go to the bathroom. Grace has given me permission, the same way the teachers in school give you permission. As I come up the cellar stairs I can hear Aunt Mildred and Mrs. Smeath, who are in the kitchen doing the dishes.
“She’s exactly like a heathen,” says Aunt Mildred. Because she’s been a missionary in China, she’s an authority. “Nothing you’ve done has made a scrap of difference.”
“She’s learning her Bible, Grace tells me,” Mrs. Smeath says, and then I know it’s me they’re discussing. I stop on the top step, where I can see into the kitchen: the kitchen table where the dirty dishes are piled, the back edges of Mrs. Smeath and Aunt Mildred.
“They’ll learn all that,” says Aunt Mildred. “Till you’re blue in the face. But it’s all rote learning, it doesn’t sink in. The minute your back is turned they’ll go right back the way they were.”
The unfairness of this hits me like a kick. How can they say that, when I’ve won a special mention for my essay on Temperance, about drunken men having car accidents and freezing to death in snowstorms because the alcohol dilates their capillaries? I even know what capillaries are, I even spelled it right. I can recite whole psalms, whole chapters, I can sing all the colored-slide white-knight Sunday school songs without looking.
“What can you expect, with that family?” says Mrs. Smeath. She doesn’t go on to say what’s wrong with my family. “The other children sense it. They know.”
“You don’t think they’re being too hard on her?” says Aunt Mildred. Her voice is relishing. She wants to know how hard.
“It’s God’s punishment,” says Mrs. Smeath. “It serves her right.”
A hot wave moves through my body. This wave is shame, which I have felt before, but it is also hatred, which I have not, not in this pure form. It’s hatred with a particular shape, the shape of Mrs. Smeath’s one breast and no waist. It’s like a fleshy weed in my chest, white-stemmed and fat; like the stalk of a burdock, with its rank leaves and little green burrs, growing in the cat piss earth beside the path down to the bridge. A heavy, thick hatred.
I stand there on the top step, frozen with hate. What I hate is not Grace or even Cordelia. I can’t go as far as that. I hate Mrs. Smeath, because what I thought was a secret, something going on among girls, among children, is not one. It has been discussed before, and tolerated. Mrs. Smeath has known and approved. She has done nothing to stop it. She thinks it serves me right. She moves away from the sink and walks to the kitchen table for another stack of dirty plates, into my line of vision. I have a brief, intense image of Mrs. Smeath going through the flesh-colored wringer of my mother’s washing machine, legs first, bones cracking and flattening, skin and flesh squeezing up toward her head, which will pop in a minute like a huge balloon of blood. If my eyes could shoot out fatal rays like the ones in comic books I would incinerate her on the spot. She is right, I am a heathen. I cannot forgive.
As if she can feel my stare she turns and sees me. Our eyes meet: she knows I’ve heard. But she doesn’t flinch, she isn’t embarrassed or apologetic. She gives me that smug smile, with the lips closed over the teeth. What she says is not to me but to Aunt Mildred. “Little pitchers have big ears.”
Her bad heart floats in her body like an eye, an evil eye, it sees me. We sit on the wooden bench in the church basement, in the dark, watching the wall. Light glints from Grace’s glassy eyes as she watches me sideways.
God sees the little sparrow fall,
It meets His tender view;
If God so loves the little bird,
I know He loves me too.
The picture is of a dead bird in an enormous hand, with a shaft of light coming down onto it. I am moving my lips, but I’m not singing. I am losing confidence in God. Mrs. Smeath has God all sewed up, she knows what things are his punishments. He’s on her side, and it’s a side from which I’m excluded.
I consider Jesus, who is supposed to love me. But he isn’t showing any sign of it, and I don’t think he can be of much help. Against Mrs. Smeath and God he can do nothing, because God is bigger. God is not Our Father at all. My image of him now is of something huge, hard, inexorable, faceless and moving forward as if on tracks. God is a sort of engine.
I decide not to pray to God any more. When it’s time for the Lord’s Prayer I stand in silence, moving my lips only.
Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. I refuse to say this. If it means I will have to forgive Mrs. Smeath or else go to Hell when I die, I’m ready to go. Jesus must have known how hard it is to forgive, that was why he put this in. He was always putting in things that were impossible to do really, such as giving away all your money.
“You weren’t praying,” Grace says to me in a whisper.
My stomach goes cold. Which is worse, to contradict her or to admit? Either way there will be penalties.
“Yes I was,” I say.
“You weren’t. I heard you.”
I say nothing.
“You lied,” says Grace, pleased, forgetting to whisper.
I still say nothing.
“You should ask God to forgive you,” Grace says. “That’s what I do, every night.”
I sit in the dark, attacking my fingers. I think about Grace asking God to forgive her. But for what? God only forgives you if you’re sorry, and she never gives a sign of being sorry. She never thinks she’s done anything wrong.
Grace and Cordelia and Carol are up ahead, I am a block behind. They aren’t letting me walk with them today because I have been insolent, but they don’t want me too far behind either. I am walking along, in time to the music, Keep happy with the Happy Gang, my head empty except for these words. I walk head down, scanning the sidewalk, the gutters, for silver cigarette papers, although I no longer collect them as I did long ago. I know that nothing I could make with them would be worthwhile. I see a piece of paper with a colored picture on it. I pick it up. I know what the picture is: it’s the Virgin Mary. The paper is from Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Our Lady of Perpetual Hell. The Virgin Mary is wearing a long blue robe, no feet at all visible below the hem, a white cloth over her head and a crown on top of that, and a yellow halo with light rays coming out of it like nails. She’s smiling sadly in a disappointed way; her hands are outstretched as if in welcome, and her heart is on the outside of her chest, with seven swords stuck into it. Or they look like swords. The heart is large, red and tidy, like a satin heart pincushion, or a valentine. Under the picture is printed: The Seven Sorrows. The Virgin Mary is in some of our Sunday school papers, but never with a crown, never with a pincushion heart, never all by herself. She is always more or less in the background. Not much fuss is made over her except at Christ mas, and even then Baby Jesus is a lot more important. When Mrs. Smeath and Aunt Mildred speak of Catholics, as they have been known to do at the Sunday dinner table, it’s always with contempt. Catholics pray to statues and drink real wine at Communion, instead of grape juice. “They worship the Pope,” is what the Smeaths say; or else, “They worship the Virgin Mary,”
as if this is a scandalous thing to do.
I look at the picture up close. But I know it would be dangerous to keep it, so I throw it away. This is the right impulse, because now the three of them have stopped, they’re waiting for me to catch up to them. Anything I do, other than standing, other than walking, attracts their attention.
“What was that thing we saw you pick up?” says Cordelia.
“What sort of a paper?”
“Just a paper. A Sunday school paper.”
“Why did you pick it up?”
Once I would have thought about this question, tried to answer it truthfully. Now I say, “I don’t know.”
This is the only answer I can give, to anything, that will not be ridiculed or questioned.
“What did you do with it?”
“I threw it away.”
“Don’t pick things up off the street,” says Cordelia. “They have germs.” She lets it go at that. I decide to do something dangerous, rebellious, perhaps even blasphemous. I can no longer pray to God so I will pray to the Virgin Mary instead. This decision makes me nervous, as if I’m about to steal. My heart beats harder, my hands feel cold. I feel I’m about to get caught. Kneeling seems called for. In the onion church we don’t kneel, but the Catholics are known for it. I kneel down beside my bed and put my hands together, like the children in Christmas cards, except that I’m wearing blue-striped flannelette pajamas and they always have white nightgowns on. I close my eyes and try to think about the Virgin Mary. I want her to help me or at least show me that she can hear me, but I don’t know what to say. I haven’t learned the words for her.
I try to picture what she would look like, if I met her on the street for instance: would she be wearing clothes like my mother’s, or that blue dress and crown, and if it was the blue dress would a crowd gather? Maybe they would think she was just someone out of a Christmas play; but not if she had her heart on the outside like that, stuck full of swords. I try to think what I would tell her. But she knows already: she knows how unhappy I am.
I pray harder and harder. My prayers are wordless, defiant, dry-eyed, desperate, without hope. Nothing happens. I squeeze my fists into my eyes until they hurt. For an instant I think I see a face, then a splash of blue, but now all I can see is the heart. There it is, bright red, rounded, with a dark light around it, a blackness like luminous velvet. Gold comes out from the center, then fades. It’s the heart all right. It looks like my red plastic purse.
I t’s the middle of March. In the schoolroom windows the Easter tulips are beginning to bloom. There’s still snow on the ground, a dirty filigree, though the winter is losing its hardness and glitter. The sky thickens, sinks lower.
We walk home under the low thick sky that is gray and bulging with dampness. Moist soft flakes are falling out of it, piling up on roofs and branches, sliding off now and then to hit with a wet cottony thunk. There’s no wind and the sound is muffled by the snow.
It isn’t cold. I undo the ties on my blue knitted wool hat, let it flap loose on my head. Cordelia takes off her mittens and scoops up snowballs, throwing them at trees, at telephone poles, at random. It’s one of her friendly days; she puts her arm through my arm, her other arm through Grace’s, and we march along the street, singing We don’t stop for anybody. I sing this too. Together we hop and slide. Some of the euphoria I once felt in falling snow comes back to me; I want to open my mouth and let the snow fall into it. I allow myself to laugh, like the others, trying it out. My laughter is a performance, a grab at the ordinary.
Cordelia throws herself backward onto a blank front lawn, spreads her arms out in the snow, raises them above her head, draws them down to her sides, making a snow angel. The flakes fall onto her face, into her laughing mouth, melting, clinging to her eyebrows. She blinks, closing her eyes against the snow. For a moment she looks like someone I don’t know, a stranger, shining with unknown, good possibilities. Or else a victim of a traffic accident, flung onto the snow.
She opens her eyes and reaches up her hands, which are damp and reddened, and we pull her upward so she won’t disturb the image she’s made. The snow angel has feathery wings and a tiny pin head. Where her hands stopped, down near her sides, are the imprints of her fingers, like little claws. We’ve forgotten the time, it’s getting dark. We run along the street that leads to the wooden footbridge. Even Grace runs, lumpily, calling, “Wait up!” For once she is the one left behind. Cordelia reaches the hill first and runs down it. She tries to slide but the snow is too soft, not icy enough, and there are cinders and pieces of gravel in it. She falls down and rolls. We think she’s done it on purpose, the way she made the snow angel. We rush down upon her, exhilarated, breathless, laughing, just as she’s picking herself up.
We stop laughing, because now we can see that her fall was an accident, she didn’t do it on purpose. She likes everything she does to be done on purpose.
Carol says, “Did you hurt yourself?” Her voice is quavery, she’s frightened, already she can tell that this is serious. Cordelia doesn’t answer. Her face is hard again, her eyes baleful. Grace moves so that she’s beside Cordelia, slightly behind her. From there she smiles at me, her tight smile.
Cordelia says, to me, “Were you laughing?” I think she means, was I laughing at her because she fell down.
“No,” I say.
“She was,” says Grace neutrally. Carol shifts to the side of the path, away from me.
“I’m going to give you one more chance,” says Cordelia. “Were you laughing?”
“Yes,” I say, “but…”
“Just yes or no,” says Cordelia.
I say nothing. Cordelia glances over at Grace, as if looking for approval. She sighs, an exaggerated sigh, like a grown-up’s. “Lying again,” she says. “What are we going to do with you?”
We seem to have been standing there for a long time. It’s colder now. Cordelia reaches out and pulls off my knitted hat. She marches the rest of the way down the hill and onto the bridge and hesitates for a moment. Then she walks over to the railing and throws my hat down into the ravine. Then the white oval of her face turns up toward me. “Come here,” she says.
Nothing has changed, then. Time will go on, in the same way, endlessly. My laughter was unreal after all, merely a gasp for air.
I walk down to where Cordelia stands by the railing, the snow not crunching but giving way under my feet like cotton wool packing. It sounds like a cavity being filled, in a tooth, inside my head. Usually I’m afraid to go so near the edge of the bridge, but this time I’m not. I don’t feel anything as positive as fear.
“There’s your stupid hat,” says Cordelia; and there it is, far down, still blue against the white snow, even in the dimming light. “Why don’t you go down and get it?”
I look at her. She wants me to go down into the ravine where the bad men are, where we’re never supposed to go. It occurs to me that I may not. What will she do then?
I can see this idea gathering in Cordelia as well. Maybe she’s gone too far, hit, finally, some core of resistance in me. If I refuse to do what she says this time, who knows where my defiance will end? The two others have come down the hill and are watching, safely in the middle of the bridge.
“Go on then,” she says, more gently, as if she’s encouraging me, not ordering. “Then you’ll be forgiven.”
I don’t want to go down there. It’s forbidden and dangerous; also it’s dark and the hillside will be slippery, I might have trouble climbing up again. But there is my hat. If I go home without it, I’ll have to explain, I’ll have to tell. And if I refuse to go, what will Cordelia do next? She might get angry, she might never speak to me again. She might push me off the bridge. She’s never done anything like that before, never hit or pinched, but now that she’s thrown my hat over there’s no telling what she might do. I walk along to the end of the bridge. “When you’ve got it, count to a hundred,” says Cordelia. “Before coming up.” She doesn’t sound angry any more. She sounds like someone giving instructions for a game. I start down the steep hillside, holding on to branches and tree trunks. The path isn’t even a real path, it’s just a place worn by whoever goes up and down here: boys, men. Not girls. When I’m among the bare trees at the bottom I look up. The bridge railings are silhouetted against the sky. I can see the dark outlines of three heads, watching me.
My blue hat is out on the ice of the creek. I stand in the snow, looking at it. Cordelia is right, it’s a stupid hat. I look at it and feel resentment, because this stupid-looking hat is mine, and deserving of ridicule. I don’t want to wear it ever again.
I can hear water running somewhere, down under the ice. I step out onto the creek, reach for the hat, pick it up, go through. I’m up to my waist in the creek, slabs of broken ice upended around me. Cold shoots through me. My overshoes are filling, and the shoes inside them; water drenches my snowpants. Probably I’ve screamed, or some noise has come out of me, but I can’t remember hearing anything. I clutch the hat and look up at the bridge. Nobody is there. They must have walked away, run away. That’s why the counting to a hundred: so they could run away.
I try to move my feet. They’re very heavy, because of the water inside my boots. If I wanted to I could just keep standing here. It’s true dusk now and the snow on the ground is bluish-white. The old tires and pieces of rusted junk in the creek are covered over; all around me are blue arches, blue caves, pure and silent. The water of the creek is cold and peaceful, it comes straight from the cemetery, from the graves and their bones. It’s water made from the dead people, dissolved and clear, and I am standing in it. If I don’t move soon I will be frozen in the creek. I will be a dead person, peaceful and clear, like them. I flounder through the water, the edges of the ice breaking off as I step. Walking with waterlogged overshoes is hard; I could slip, and fall all the way in. I grab a tree branch and haul myself up onto the bank and sit down in the blue snow and take off my overshoes and pour out the water. The arms of my jacket are wet to the elbows, my mittens are soaked. Now there are knives going through my legs and hands, and tears running down my face from the pain.
I can see lights along the edges of the ravine, from the houses there, impossibly high up. I don’t know how I’m going to up the hill with my hands and feet hurting like this; I don’t know how I’m going to get home.
My head is filling with black sawdust; little specks of the darkness are getting in through my eyes. It’s as if the snowflakes are black, the way white is black on a negative. The snow has changed to tiny pellets, more like sleet. It makes a rustling noise coming down through the branches, like the shifting and whispering of people in a crowded room who know they must be quiet. It’s the dead people, coming up invisible out of the water, gathering around me. Hush, is what they say. I’m lying on my back beside the creek, looking up at the sky. Nothing hurts any more. The sky has a reddish undercolor. The bridge is different-looking; it seems higher above me, more solid, as if the railings have disappeared or been filled in. And it’s glowing, there are pools of light along it, greenish-yellow, not like any light I’ve ever seen before. I sit up to get a better look. My body feels weightless, as it does in water.
There’s someone on the bridge, I can see the dark outline. At first I think it’s Cordelia, come back for me. Then I see that it’s not a child, it’s too tall for a child. I can’t see the face, there’s just a shape. One of the yellowish-green lights is behind it, coming out in rays from around the head. I know I should get up and walk home, but it seems easier to stay here, in the snow, with the little pellets of ice caressing my face gently. Also I’m very sleepy. I close my eyes. I hear someone talking to me. It’s like a voice calling, only very soft, as if muffled. I’m not sure I’ve heard it at all. I open my eyes with an effort. The person who was standing on the bridge is moving through the railing, or melting into it. It’s a woman, I can see the long skirt now, or is it a long cloak? She isn’t falling, she’s coming down toward me as if walking, but there’s nothing for her to walk on. I don’t have the energy to be frightened. I lie in the snow, watching her with lethargy, and with a sluggish curiosity. I would like to be able to walk on air like that.
Now she’s quite close. I can see the white glimmer of her face, the dark scarf or hood around her head, or is it hair? She holds out her arms to me and I feel a surge of happiness. Inside her half-open cloak there’s a glimpse of red. It’s her heart, I think. It must be her heart, on the outside of her body, glowing like neon, like a coal.
Then I can’t see her any more. But I feel her around me, not like arms but like a small wind of warmer air. She’s telling me something.
You can go home now, she says. It will be all right. Go home. I don’t hear the words out loud, but this is what she says.
T he lights on the top of the bridge are gone. I make my way in the dark, up the hill, sleet rustling around me, hauling myself up by branches and tree trunks, my shoes slipping on the packed icy snow. Nothing hurts, not even my feet, not even my hands. It’s like flying. The small wind moves with me, a warm touch against my face.
I know who it is that I’ve seen. It’s the Virgin Mary, there can be no doubt. Even when I was praying I wasn’t sure she was real, but now I know she is. Who else could walk on air like that, who else would have a glowing heart? True, there was no blue dress, no crown; her dress looked black. But it was dark. Maybe the crown was there and I couldn’t see it. Anyway she could have different clothes, different dresses. None of that matters, because she came to get me. She didn’t want me freezing in the snow. She is still with me, invisible, wrapping me in warmth and painlessness, she has heard me after all. I am up on the main path now; the lights from the houses are nearer, above me, on either side of me. I can hardly keep my eyes open. I’m not even walking straight. But my feet keep on moving, one in front of the other.
Up ahead is the street. As I reach it I see my mother, walking very fast. Her coat isn’t done up, she has no scarf on her head, her overshoes flap, half fastened. When she sees me she begins to run. I stop still, watching her running figure with the coat flying out on either side and the unwieldy overshoes, as if she’s just some other person I’m watching, someone in a race. She comes up to me under a streetlamp and I see her eyes, large and gleaming with wet, and her hair dusted with sleet. She has no mittens on. She throws her arms around me, and as she does this the Virgin Mary is suddenly gone. Pain and cold shoot back into me. I start to shiver violently.
“I fell in,” I say. “I was getting my hat.” My voice sounds thick, the words mumbled. Something is wrong with my tongue.
My mother does not say, Where have you been? or Why are you so late? She says, “Where are your overshoes?” They are down in the ravine, covering over with snow. I have forgotten them, and my hat as well.
“It fell over the bridge,” I say. I need to get this lie over with as soon as possible. Telling the truth about Cordelia is still unthinkable for me.
My mother takes off her coat and wraps it around me. Her mouth is tight, her face is frightened and angry at the same time. It’s the look she used to have when we would cut ourselves, a long time ago, up north. She puts her arm under my armpit and hurries me along. My feet hurt at every step. I wonder if I will be punished for going down into the ravine.
When we reach the house my mother peels off my soggy half-frozen clothes and puts me into a lukewarm bath. She looks carefully at my fingers and toes, my nose, my ear lobes. “Where were Grace and Cordelia?” she asks me. “Did they see you fall in?”
“No,” I say. “They weren’t there.”
I can tell she’s thinking about phoning their mothers no matter what I do, but I am too tired to care. “A lady helped me,” I say.
“What lady?” says my mother, but I know better than to tell her. If I say who it really was I won’t be believed. “Just a lady,” I say.
My mother says I’m lucky I don’t have severe frostbite. I know about frostbite: your fingers and toes fall off, as punishment for drink. She feeds me a cup of milky tea and puts me into bed with a hot water bottle and flannelette sheets, and spreads two extra blankets on top. I am still shivering. My father has come home and I hear them talking in low, anxious voices out in the hallway. Then my father comes in and puts his hand on my forehead, and fades to a shadow.
I dream I’m running along the street outside the school. I’ve done something wrong. It’s autumn, the leaves are burning. A lot of people are chasing after me. They’re shouting. An invisible hand takes mine, pulls upward. There are steps into the air and I go up them. No one else can see where the steps are. Now I’m standing in the air, out of reach above the upturned faces. They’re still shouting but I can no longer hear them. Their mouths close and open silently, like the mouths of fish. I am kept home from school for two days. The first day I lie in bed, floating in the glassy delicate clarity of fever. By the second day I am thinking about what happened. I can remember Cordelia throwing my blue knitted hat over the bridge, I remember falling through the ice and then my mother running toward me with her sleety hair. All these things are certain, but in between them there’s a hazy space. The dead people and the woman in the cloak are there, but in the same way dreams are. I’m not sure, now, that it really was the Virgin Mary. I believe it but I no longer know it.
I’m given a get-well card with violets on it from Carol, shoved through the letter slot. On the weekend Cordelia calls me on the telephone. “We didn’t know you fell in,” she says. “We’re sorry we didn’t wait. We thought you were right behind us.” Her voice is careful, precise, rehearsed, unrepentant. I know she’s told some story that conceals what really happened, as I have. I know that this apology has been exacted from her, and that I will be made to pay for it later. But she has never apologized to me before. This apology, however fake, makes me feel not stronger but weaker. I don’t know what to say.
“It’s okay,” is what I manage. I think I mean it.
When I go back to school, Cordelia and Grace are polite but distant. Carol is more obviously frightened, or interested. “My mother says you almost froze to death,” she whispers as we stand in line, two by two, waiting for the bell. “I got a spanking, with the hairbrush. I really got it.”
The snow is melting from the lawns; mud reappears on the floors, at school, in the kitchen at home. Cordelia circles me warily. I catch her eyes on me, considering, as we walk home from school. Conversation is artificially normal. We stop at the store for licorice whips, which Carol buys. As we stroll along, sucking in licorice, Cordelia says, “I think Elaine should be punished for telling on us, don’t you?”
“I didn’t tell,” I say. I no longer feel the sinking in my gut, the held-back tearfulness that such a false accusation would once have produced. My voice is flat, calm, reasonable.
“Don’t contradict me,” Cordelia says. “Then how come your mother phoned our mothers?”
“Yeah, how come?” says Carol.
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” I say. I’m amazed at myself.
“You’re being insolent,” says Cordelia. “Wipe that smirk off your face.”
I am still a coward, still fearful; none of that has changed. But I turn and walk away from her. It’s like stepping off a cliff, believing the air will hold you up. And it does. I see that I don’t have to do what she says, and, worse and better, I’ve never had to do what she says. I can do what I like.
“Don’t you dare walk away on us,” Cordelia says behind me. “You get back here right now!” I can hear this for what it is. It’s an imitation, it’s acting. It’s an impersonation, of someone much older. It’s a game. There was never anything about me that needed to be improved. It was always a game, and I have been fooled. I have been stupid. My anger is as much at myself as at them.
“Ten stacks of plates,” says Grace. This would once have reduced me. Now I find it silly. I keep walking. I feel daring, light-headed. They are not my best friends or even my friends. Nothing binds me to them. I am free.
They follow along behind me, making comments on the way I walk, on how I look from behind. If I were to turn I would see them imitating me. “Stuck up! Stuck up!” they cry. I can hear the hatred, but also the need. They need me for this, and I no longer need them. I am indifferent to them. There’s something hard in me, crystalline, a kernel of glass. I cross the street and continue along, eating my licorice. I stop going to Sunday school. I refuse to play with Grace or Cordelia or even Carol after school. I no longer walk home over the bridge, but the long way around, past the cemetery. When they come in a group to the back door to collect me I tell them I’m busy. They try kindness, to lure me back, but I am no longer susceptible to it. I can see the greed in their eyes. It’s as if I can see right into them. Why was I unable to do this before?
I spend a lot of time reading comic books in my brother’s room when he isn’t there. I would like to climb up skyscrapers, fly with a cape, burn holes in metal with my fingertips, wear a mask, see through walls. I would like to hit people, criminals, each fist making a red or yellow light-burst. Kapow. Krac. Kaboom. I know that I have the will to do these things. I intend to do them somehow. At school I make friends with a different girl, whose name is Jill. She is interested in other kinds of games, games of paper and wood. We go to her house and play Old Maid, Snap, Pick Up Sticks. Grace and Cordelia and Carol hang around the edges of my life, enticing, jeering, growing paler and paler every day, less and less substantial. I hardly hear them any more because I hardly listen. Eight – Half a Face
F or a long time, I would go into churches. I told myself I wanted to see the art; I didn’t know I was looking for something. I wouldn’t seek these churches out, even if they were in a guidebook and of historic significance, and I would never go into them during services, in fact I disliked the idea: it was what was in them, not what went on in them, that interested me. Mostly I would just see them by accident and go into them on impulse.
Once in, I paid little attention to the architecture, although I knew the terms: clerestories and naves were things I’d written papers about. I would look at the stained-glass windows, if any. I preferred Catholic churches to Protestant ones, the more ornate the better, because there was more to look at. I liked the shameless extravaganza: gold leaf and baroque excesses did not put me off. I would read the inscriptions on walls, and carved into floors, a special foible of rich Anglicans who thought they’d get more points with God by being engraved. Anglicans too went in for tattered military flags, and war memorials of other kinds.
But especially I sought out statues. Statues of saints, and of crusaders on their biers, or those pretending to be crusaders; effigies of all kinds. Statues of the Virgin Mary I would save for last. I would approach them with hope, but I was always disappointed. The statues were of no one I recognized. They were dolls dressed up, insipid in blue and white, pious and lifeless. Then I would not know why I’d been expecting to see something else.
I went to Mexico the first time with Ben. It was also our first trip together, our first time together; I thought it might be only an interlude. I wasn’t even sure I wanted a man in my life again; by that time I’d exhausted the notion that the answer to a man is another man, and I was out of breath. But it was a relief to be with someone who was so uncomplicated, and easily pleased.
We were by ourselves, on a two-week excursion that turned out to have something to do with Ben’s business. Sarah was staying with her best friend. We began in Veracruz, checking out shrimp and the hotels and cockroaches, then took a car up into the hills, looking as always for something picturesque and undervisited.
There was a small town beside a lake. The place was subdued, for Mexico, which had struck me as visceral, like a body turned inside out so the blood was on the outside. Perhaps it was the coolness, the lake.
While Ben was inspecting the market, searching for things to take pictures of, I went into the church. It wasn’t large, and looked poor. There was nobody in it; it smelled of old stone, old neglect, mustiness. I wandered around the outside aisles, looking at the awkward Stations of the Cross, done in grubby oils, almost a paint by numbers. They were bad, but genuine: someone had meant them. Then I saw the Virgin Mary. I didn’t know it was her at first, because she was dressed not in the usual blue or white and gold, but in black. She didn’t have a crown. Her head was bowed, her face in shadow, her hands held out open at the sides. Around her feet were the stubs of candles, and all over her black dress were pinned what I thought at first were stars, but which were instead little brass or tin arms, legs, hands, sheep, donkeys, chickens, and hearts.
I could see what these were for: she was a Virgin of lost things, one who restored what was lost. She was the only one of these wood or marble or plaster Virgins who had ever seemed at all real to me. There could be some point in praying to her, kneeling down, lighting a candle. But I didn’t do it, because I didn’t know what to pray for. What was lost, what I could pin on her dress. Ben came after a while and found me. “What’s the matter?” he said. “What’re you doing down on the floor? Are you all right?”
“Yes,” I said. “Nothing. Just resting.”
I was chilled through from the stone, my muscles were cramped and stiff. I’d forgotten how I got down there.
My daughters, both of them, went through a phase when they would say So? Meaning So what. It was when the first one hit twelve or thirteen. They’d fold their arms and stare at me, or at their friends, or at each other. So?
“Don’t do that,” I’d say. “It’s driving me crazy.”
Cordelia did the same thing, at the same age. The same folded arms, the same immobile face, the blank-eyed stare. Cordelia! Put on your gloves, it’s cold out. So? I can’t come over, I have to finish my homework. So?
Cordelia, I think. You made me believe I was nothing.
To which there is no answer.
T he summer comes and goes and then it’s fall and then winter, and the King dies. I hear it on the news at lunchtime. I walk back to school along the snowy street, thinking, The King is dead. Now all the things that happened when he was alive are over and done with: the war, the planes with only one wing, the mud outside our house, a lot of things. I think of those heads of his, thousands of them, on the money, which are now the heads of a dead person instead of a living one. The money will have to be changed, and the postage stamps; they will have the Queen on them instead. The Queen used to be Princess Elizabeth. I remember seeing her in photos, when she was much younger. I have some other memory of her, but it’s indistinct and makes me faintly uneasy.
Cordelia and Grace have both skipped a grade. They’re now in Grade Eight, even though they’re only eleven and the other ones in Grade Eight are thirteen. Carol Campbell and I are merely in Grade Six. All of us are at a different school now, one that’s finally been built on our side of the ravine, so we don’t have to take the school bus in the mornings or eat our lunches in the cellar or walk home over the collapsing footbridge after school. Our new school is a modern one-story yellow brick building that looks like a post office. It has soft-textured, eye-saving green blackboards instead of screechy black ones, and tiled pastel floors instead of the old creaky wooden ones in Queen Mary. There are no BOYS and GIRLS doors, there are no separate playgrounds. Even the teachers are different: younger, more casual. Some of them are young men.
I’ve forgotten things, I’ve forgotten that I’ve forgotten them. I remember my old school, but only dimly, as if I was last there five years ago instead of five months. I remember going to Sunday school, but not the details. I know I don’t like the thought of Mrs. Smeath, but I’ve forgotten why. I’ve forgotten about fainting and about the stacks of plates, and about falling into the creek and also about seeing the Virgin Mary. I’ve forgotten all of the bad things that happened. Although I see Cordelia and Grace and Carol every day, I remember none of those things; only that they used to be my friends, when I was younger, before I had other friends. There’s something to do with them, something like a sentence in tiny dry print on a page, flattened out, like the dates of ancient battles. Their names are like names in a footnote, or names written in spidery brown ink in the fronts of Bibles. There is no emotion attached to these names. They’re like the names of distant cousins, people who live far away, people I hardly know. Time is missing.
Nobody mentions anything about this missing time, except my mother. Once in a while she says, “That bad time you had,” and I am puzzled. What is she talking about? I find these references to bad times vaguely threatening, vaguely insulting: I am not the sort of girl who has bad times, I have good times only. There I am, in the Grade Six class picture, smiling broadly. Happy as a clam, is what my mother says for happy. I am happy as a clam: hard-shelled, firmly closed.
My parents labor away at our house. Rooms are being constructed in the cellar, gradually and with a lot of hammering and sawing, in my father’s spare time: a darkroom, a storeroom for jars and jellies and jams. The lawn is a lawn now. In the garden they’ve planted a peach tree, a pear tree, an asparagus bed, rows and rows of vegetables. The borders are lush with flowers: tulips and daffodils, irises, peonies, pinks, chrysanthemums, something for every season. Occasionally I have to help, but mostly I watch with detachment as they upend themselves in the mud, digging and weeding, clay stains on the knees of their pants. They’re like kids in a sandpile. I like the flowers, but know I would not go to such lengths, make such efforts, get myself so dirty to produce them.
The wooden footbridge over the ravine is torn down. Everyone says it’s about time, it was getting so unsafe. They’re going to replace it with a bridge made of concrete. I go one day and stand at the top of the hill on our side of the ravine, watching the bridge come down. There’s a pile of rotten boards down by the creek. The vertical piles are still standing, like the trunks of dead trees, and part of the cross-planking is attached to them, but the railings are gone. I have an uneasy feeling, as if something’s buried down there, a nameless, crucial thing, or as if there’s someone still on the bridge, left by mistake, up in the air, unable to get to the land. But it’s obvious there’s no one. Cordelia and Grace graduate and go elsewhere; Cordelia, it’s rumored, to St. Sebastian’s, a private school for girls, Grace to a high school farther north which emphasizes math. She’s good at adding things up in neat little rows. She still has her long braids when she graduates. Carol hangs around near the boys at recess, and is often chased by two or three of them. They like to throw her into snowbanks and rub snow into her face, or, when snow is lacking, to tie her up with skipping ropes. When she runs away from them she flings her arms around a lot. She runs in a funny wiggling way, slow enough to be caught, and screams loudly when she is. She wears a training bra. She isn’t much liked by the other girls. For Social Studies I do a project on Tibet, where there are prayer wheels and reincarnation and women have two husbands, and for Science I do different kinds of seeds. I have a boyfriend, as is the fashion. Occasionally he sends me a note across the aisle, written in very black pencil. Sometimes there are parties, with awkward dancing and clumsy guffaws and horseplay by the boys, and wet, inexpert, toothy kisses. My boyfriend carves my initials into the top of his new school desk and gets the strap for it. He gets the strap for other things too. This is admired. I see my first television set, which is like a small black-and-white puppet show of no great interest.
Carol Campbell moves away and I hardly notice. I skip Grade Seven and go straight into Grade Eight, missing the Kings of England in chronological order, missing the circulatory system, leaving my boyfriend behind. I get my hair cut. I want to do this. I’m tired of having long wavy hair that has to be held back by barrettes or hairbands, I’m tired of being a child. I watch with satisfaction as my hair falls away from me like fog and my head emerges, sharper-featured, more clearly defined. I’m ready for high school, I want to go there right away.
I reorganize my room in preparation. I clear old toys out of my cupboard, I empty out all the drawers in my bureau. I find a solitary cat’s eye marble rolling around at the back of the drawer, and some old dried-up chestnuts. Also a red plastic purse, which I remember getting for Christmas once. It’s a babyish purse. It rattles when I pick it up; inside there’s a nickel. I take the nickel out to spend, and put the marble inside the purse. I throw out the chestnuts.
I find my photo album with the black pages. I haven’t taken any pictures with my Brownie camera for a long time, so this album has slipped from view. Stuck into it with the black triangles there are pictures I can’t recall taking. For instance, there are several pictures of what look like large boulders, beside a lake. Underneath is printed, in white pencil: Daisy. Elsie. It’s my writing, but I don’t remember printing this. I take these things down to the cellar and put them into the trunk, where old things go that are not thrown out. My mother’s wedding dress is in there, several pieces of ornate silver, some sepia-toned portraits of people I don’t know, a packet of bridge tallies with silk tassels on them, left over from before the war. Some of our old drawings are in there, my brother’s spaceships and red and gold explosions, my delicate, old-fashioned little girls. I look at their pinafores and hair bows and their rudimentary faces and hands with distaste. I don’t like looking at things connected so closely with my life as a child. I think these drawings are inept: I can do much better now.
The day before the first day of high school the telephone rings. It’s Cordelia’s Mummie; she wants to speak to my mother. I assume it’s boring grown-ups’ business and go back to reading the newspaper on the living room floor. But after she puts the phone down, my mother comes into the room.
“Elaine,” she says. This is unusual, as she doesn’t often use my name. She sounds solemn. I look up from Mandrake the Magician. She looks down. “That was Cordelia’s mother,” she says.
“Cordelia will be going to your high school. Cordelia’s mother wonders whether you girls would like to walk to school together.”
“Cordelia?” I say. I haven’t seen or spoken to Cordelia for a whole year. She has vanished completely. I’ve chosen that school because I can walk to it, instead of going on a bus; so why not walk with Cordelia? “Okay,” I say.
“Are you sure you want to?” my mother says, a little anxiously. She doesn’t say why Cordelia will be coming to my school now and I don’t ask.
“Why wouldn’t I?” I say. I’m already sliding into flippancy, which goes with high school, but also I can’t see what she’s getting at. I’m being asked to do Cordelia, or Cordelia’s mother, some kind of a minor favor. My mother’s usual line is that you should do these favors when asked, so why is she hedging on this one?
She doesn’t answer this. Instead she hovers. I go back to reading the comics. “Shall I call her mother back, then, or would you like to speak with Cordelia yourself?” she says.
“You can call her,” I say. I add, “Please.” I have no particular wish to speak to Cordelia right now. The next morning I go to Cordelia’s house, which is on the way to school, to pick her up. The door opens and Cordelia is there, but she is no longer the same. She’s no longer angular and rangy; she’s grown full breasts and is heavier in the hips and face. Her hair is longer now, not a pageboy. She wears it in a ponytail with small white cloth lilies of the valley wired around the elastic band. She’s bleached a peroxide streak into the bangs. She has orange lipstick, and orange nail polish to match. My own lipstick is pale pink. Seeing Cordelia, I realize that I don’t look like a teenager, I look like a kid dressed up as one. I am still thin, still flat. I have a ferocious desire to be older. We walk to school together, not saying much at first, past a gas station, a funeral parlor, then a mile along a strip of shops, a Woolworth’s, an I.D.A. drugstore, a fruit and vegetable shop, a hardware store, all of them side by side in two-story flat-roofed yellow brick buildings. We hold our schoolbooks up against our chests, our full cotton skirts brushing against our bare legs. Right now it’s the end of summer, when all the lawns are dull green or yellow and used up.
I’ve assumed Cordelia would be a grade ahead of me. But she isn’t, she’s in the same grade now. She’s been expelled from St. Sebastian’s for drawing a penis on a bat. Or this is what she says. She says there was a large drawing of a bat on the blackboard, with its wings outspread and just a tiny bump between its legs. So she went up to the blackboard when the teacher was out of the room and rubbed out the little bump and made a bigger, longer one—“Not that much bigger”—and the teacher came into the room and caught her doing it.
“Is that all?” I say.
Not exactly. She also printed Mr. Malder, neatly, underneath the bump. Mr. Malder was the teacher’s name.
Probably this wasn’t all she did, but it’s all she’s telling about. As an afterthought she mentions that she failed her year. “I was too young for it,” she says. This sounds like something she’s been told by other people, her mother most likely. “I was only twelve. They shouldn’t have skipped me.”
Now she’s thirteen. I am twelve. I too have been skipped. I begin to wonder if I’ll end up the same way she has, drawing penises on bats, failing my year.
T he school we go to is called Burnham High School. It’s recently built, oblong in shape, flat-roofed, undecorated, unrevealing, sort of like a factory. It’s the latest thing in modern architecture. Inside, it has long corridors with mottled floors of something that looks like granite but is not. The yellowish walls are lined with dark-green lockers, and there’s an auditorium and a P.A. system. Every morning we have announcements over the P.A. system. First we have a Bible reading and prayers. I bow my head during the prayers but I refuse to pray, though I don’t know why I do this. After the prayers the principal tells us of coming events, and he also warns us to pick up our chewing gum wrappers and not to moon around in the halls like old married couples. His name is Mr. MacLeod, although everyone calls him Chrome Dome behind his back because he’s bald on top; and he’s a Scot by affiliation. Burnham High has a school plaid, a school crest with a thistle and a couple of those Scottish knives they stick in their socks, and a Gaelic motto. The plaid, the crest, the motto, and the school colors all belong to Mr. MacLeod’s personal clan.
In the front hall, alongside the Queen, hangs a portrait of Dame Flora MacLeod with her two bagpipe-playing grandsons, posed outside Dunvegan Castle. We are encouraged to think of this castle as our ancestral home, and of Dame Flora as our spiritual leader. In choir we learn “The Skye Boat Song,”
about Bonnie Prince Charlie escaping the genocidal English. We learn “Scots Wha‘ Hae,” and a poem about a mouse, which causes some snickering as it contains the word breast. I think all this Scottishness is normal for high schools, never having gone to one before; and even the several Armenians, Greeks, and Chinese in our school lose the edges of their differences, immersed as we all are in a mist of plaid. I don’t know many people at this school and neither does Cordelia. In my graduating class from public school there were only eight people, and in Cordelia’s there were four. So it’s a school full of strangers. In addition to that, we’re in different homerooms, so we don’t even have each other to rely on. Everyone in my homeroom is bigger than I am. This is to be expected, because everyone is also older. The girls have breasts and a drowsy, powdery, hot-day smell; the skin of their faces is slippery-looking, slick with oily juice. I’m wary of them and dislike the changing room where we have to put on the blue cotton bloomer-bottomed gym suits with our names embroidered on the pockets. In there I feel skinnier than ever; when I catch sight of myself in the mirror I can see the ribs below my collarbone. During volleyball games, these other girls lollop and thunder around me, their voices outsized and raucous, their new, extra flesh wobbling. I take care to keep out of their way, simply because they are bigger and might knock me over. But I’m not really afraid of them. In a way I despise them, because they are so much like Carol Campbell, squealing and flinging themselves around.
Among the boys there are a few pipsqueaks whose voices have not yet changed, but many of the boys are gigantic. Some are fifteen, almost sixteen. They have hair that’s long at the sides and greased back into ducktails, and they shave. Some of them look as if they shave a lot. They sit at the back of the room and stick their long legs out into the aisle. They’ve already failed a grade, at least once; they’ve given up and been given up on, and they’re doing time until they can leave. Although they call remarks at other girls in the halls and make kissing sounds at them, or dangle around their lockers, they pay no attention at all to me. To them I’m just a child.
But I don’t feel younger than these people. In some ways I feel older. In our Health book there’s a chapter on teenage emotions. According to this book, I’m supposed to be caught in a whirlwind of teenage emotions, laughing one minute, crying the next, zooming around on a roller coaster, which is their term. However, this description does not apply to me. I am calm; I regard the antics of my fellow students, who act like the textbook, with a combination of scientific curiosity and almost matronly indulgence. When Cordelia says, “Don’t you think he’s a dreamboat?” I have a hard time understanding what she means. Occasionally I do cry for no reason, as it says you’re supposed to. But I can’t believe in my own sadness, I can’t take it seriously. I watch myself crying in the mirror, intrigued by the sight of tears.
At lunchtime I sit with Cordelia in the cafeteria, which is pale-colored, with long whitish tables. We eat the lunches that have been sweltering in our school lockers all morning and which taste faintly of gym shoes, and drink chocolate milk through straws, and make what we consider to be witty, sarcastic remarks to each other, about the other kids at the school, about the teachers. Cordelia has been to high school for a year already and knows how to do this. She wears the collar of her blouse turned up and affects a derisive laugh. “He’s a pill,” she says; or, “What a creep.” These are words that apply only to boys. Girls can be tough, stuck-up or cheap, mousy or boy-crazy; or they can be brains and sucks and brownnosers, like boys, if they are thought to study too much. But they can’t be pills and creeps. I like the word pill. I think it refers to the little balls of wool that form on sweaters. Boys who are pills have sweaters like that. I take care to pick all such woolen balls off of my own sweaters. Cordelia collects glossy photos of movie stars and singers, which she sends away for, finding the addresses of the fan clubs in movie magazines that advertise Frederick‘s of Hollywood peekaboo lingerie at the back, and chocolate-flavored tablets you chew to lose weight. She thumbtacks the photos to the bulletin board over her desk and Scotch tapes them to the walls of her room. Whenever I’m in there I feel as if there’s a crowd watching me, their glossy black-and-white eyes following me around the room. Some of these pictures have signatures on them, and we examine them under the light to see if the pen has dented the paper. If not, they’re only printed on. Cordelia likes June Allyson, but she also likes Frank Sinatra and Betty Hutton. Burt Lancaster is the sexiest, according to Cordelia. On the way home from school we go to the record store and try out 78 records in the tiny cork-lined booth. Sometimes Cordelia will buy a record with her allowance, which is larger than mine, but most of the time she just tries them out. She expects me to roll my eyes in ecstasy, the way she does; she expects me to groan. She knows the rituals, she knows how we’re supposed to be behaving, now that we’re in high school. But I think these things are impenetrable and fraudulent, and I can’t do them without feeling I’m acting.
We take the records back to Cordelia’s house and put them on the record player in the living room, and turn up the sound. Frank Sinatra appears, a disembodied voice, sliding around on the tune like someone slipping on a muddy sidewalk. He slithers up to a note, hits it, flails, recovers, oozes in the direction of another note.
“Don’t you just love the way he does that?” says Cordelia. She flings herself onto the chesterfield, legs across the arm, head hanging upside-down. She’s eating a doughnut covered with powdered sugar; the sugar has come off on her nose. “I feel as if he’s right here, running his hand up and down my spine.”
“Yeah,” I say.
Perdie and Mirrie come in, and Perdie says, “Not mooning over him again,” and Mirrie says, “Cordelia dear, would you mind turning down the sound?” These days she speaks to Cordelia in tones of extra sweetness and calls her dear a lot.
Perdie is in university now. She goes to frat parties. Mirrie’s in the last year of high school, though not our high school. They are both more charming and beautiful and sophisticated than ever. They wear cashmere sweaters and pearl button earrings, and smoke cigarettes. They call them ciggie-poos. They call eggs eggie-poos, and breakfast brekkers. If someone is pregnant they say preggers. They call their mother Mummie, still. They sit and smoke their cigarettes and talk casually and with amused, semi-contemp tuous irony about their friends, who have names like Mickie and Bobbie and Poochie and Robin. It’s hard to figure out from the names whether these people are boys or girls.
“Are you sufficiently sophonsified?” Perdie asks Cordelia. This is a new thing they’ve taken to saying. It means, have you had enough to eat? “Those were supposed to be for dinner.” She means the doughnuts.
“There’s a lot left,” says Cordelia, still upside-down, wiping her nose.
“Cordelia,” says Perdie. “Don’t turn your collar up like that. It’s cheap.”
“It’s not cheap,” says Cordelia. “It’s sharp.”
“Sharp,” says Perdie, rolling her eyes, blowing smoke from her nose. Her mouth is little and plump and curly at the edges. “That sounds like a hair oil ad.”
Cordelia sits around right side up and sticks her tongue in the corner of her mouth and looks at Perdie.
“So?” she says at last. “What do you know? You’re already over the hill.”
Perdie, who’s old enough to drink cocktails with the grown-ups before dinner although she’s not supposed to do it in bars, curls up her mouth. “I think high school’s bad for her,” she says to Mirrie.
“She’s turning into a hardrock.” She pronounces this word in a mocking drawl, to show that it’s the sort of word she herself has outgrown. “Pull up your socks, Cordelia, or you’ll flunk your year again. You know what Daddy said last time.”
Cordelia flushes, and can’t think what to say back.
Cordelia begins to pinch things from stores. She doesn’t call it stealing, she calls it pinching. She pinches tubes of lipstick from Woolworth’s, packets of licorice Nibs from the drugstore. She goes in and buys some small item, such as bobby pins, and when the salesgirl has her back turned getting the change out of the till she slips something off the counter and hides it under her coat or in her coat pocket. By this time it’s autumn, and we have long coats which flap against the backs of our legs, coats with baggy, outsize patch pockets, good for pinching. Outside the store she shows me what she’s gotten away with. She seems to think there’s nothing wrong in what she’s doing; she laughs with delight, her eyes sparkle, her cheeks are flushed. It’s as if she’s won a prize.
The Woolworth’s has old wooden floors, stained from years of winter slush on people’s boots, and dim overhead lights that hang down from the ceiling on metal stems. Nothing in it is anything we would really want, except maybe the lipsticks. There are photo frames with strangely tinted pictures of movie stars in them to show what the frame would look like with a photo in it; these stars have names like Raymon Novarro and Linda Darnell, stars from some remote period several years ago. There are cheesy hats, old-lady hats with veiling around them, and hair combs stuck with imitation rhinestones. Just about everything in here is imitation something else. We walk up and down the aisles, spraying ourselves from the cologne testers, rubbing the sample lipsticks on the backs of our hands, fingering the merchandise and disparaging it in loud voices, while the middle-aged salesladies glare at us. Cordelia pinches a pink nylon scarf and thinks she’s been seen by one of the glaring salesladies, so we don’t go back there for a while. We go into the drugstore and buy Cream-sicles, and while I’m paying for them Cordelia pinches two horror comics. As we walk the rest of the way home from school we take turns reading them out loud, dramatizing the parts like radio plays, pausing to shriek with laughter. We sit on the low stone wall in front of the funeral parlor so we can both see the pictures, reading and laughing. The comic books are drawn in great detail and garishly colored, with green and purple and sulfur-yellow prevailing. Cordelia reads a story about two sisters, a pretty one and one who has a burn covering half her face. The burn is maroon-colored and wrinkled like a dead apple. The pretty one has a boyfriend and goes to dances, the burned one hates her and loves the boyfriend. The burned one hangs herself in front of a mirror, out of jealousy. But her spirit goes into the mirror, and the next time the pretty one is brushing her hair in front of that mirror, she looks up and there’s the burned one looking back at her. This is a shock and she faints, and the burned one gets out of the mirror and into the pretty one’s body. She takes over the body and fools the boyfriend, she even gets him to kiss her, but although her face is now perfect, her reflection in that one mirror still shows her real, ruined face. The boyfriend sees it. Luckily he knows what to do. He freaks the mirror.
“Sob, sob,” says Cordelia. “Oh, Bob…it was…horrible. Never mind, my darling, it’s all over now. She’s gone…back…to where she came from…forever. Now we can truly be together, without fear. Clinch. The End. Oh, puke!”
I read one about a man and a woman who drown at sea but find they aren’t dead exactly. Instead they are enormously bloated and far, and living on a desert island. They don’t love each other any more because of being so fat. Along comes a ship and they wave to it. “They don’t see us! They’re passing right through us! Oh no…that must mean…we’re condemned to be this way forever! Is there no way out?”
In the next picture they’ve hanged themselves. The fat bodies are dangling from one of the palm trees, and their previous thin bodies, wispy-looking and dressed in falling-apart bathing suits, are holding hands and walking into the ocean. “Clinch. The End.”
“Oh, double puke,” says Cordelia.
Cordelia reads one about a dead man coming back out of a swamp, covered with dripping, peeling-off flesh, to strangle the brother who pushed him into the swamp in the first place, and I read one about a man picking up a beautiful girl hitchhiker who turns out to have been dead for ten years. Cordelia reads one about a man who gets cursed by a voodoo witch doctor and grows a big red lobster claw on his hand, which turns on him and attacks him.
When we get to Cordelia’s house, Cordelia doesn’t want to take the horror comics inside with her. She says someone might find them and wonder where she got them. Even if they think she bought them, she’ll be in trouble. So I end up taking them home with me. It doesn’t occur to either of us to throw them out. Once I get them home, I realize I don’t want them in them in the daylight, but I don’t like the idea of them lying there, right in my bedroom, while I’m asleep. I think of them glowing in the dark, with a lurid sulfur-yellow light; I think of curling wisps of mist coming out of them and materializing on top of my bureau. I’m afraid I’ll find out that there’s someone else trapped inside my body; I’ll look into the bathroom mirror and see the face of another girl, someone who looks like me but has half of her face darkened, the skin burned away.
I know these things won’t really happen, but I don’t like the thought. Nor do I want to throw the comics away; that would be letting them loose, they might go out of control. So I take them into Stephen’s room and slide them in among his own old comic books, which are still there, stacked up under his bed. He never reads them any more, so he won’t find these ones. Whatever emanations may seep from them at night, he will be impervious to them. In my opinion he is up to things, which includes things of this kind.
I t’s Sunday evening. There’s a fire in the fireplace; the drapes are drawn against the heavy November darkness. My father sits in the easy chair marking drawings of spruce budworms cut open to show their digestive systems, my mother has made grilled cheese squares with bacon on them. We’re listening to
“The Jack Benny Show” on the radio, which is punctuated by singing commercials for Lucky Strike cigarettes. On this show there is a man who talks in a raspy voice and another one who says “Pickle in the middle and the mustard on top.” I have no idea that the first one is supposed to be black and the second one Jewish; I think they just have funny voices.
Our old radio with the green eye has vanished, and a new, blond one has appeared, in a smooth unornamented cabinet that holds a long-playing record player as well. We have little wooden nesting tables for our plates with the cheese squares; these tables are blond also, with legs that are wide at the top and taper down without a bump or curlicue, no dust catchers. They look like the legs of fat women as they appear in comic books: no knees, no ankles. All this blond wood is from Scandinavia. Our silverware has descended to the steamer trunk. In its place there is new silverware, which is not silver but stainless steel.
These items have been chosen, not by my mother, but by my father. He picks out my mother’s dressing-up clothes as well; my mother, laughing, says that all her taste is in her mouth. As far as she is concerned a chair is there to sit down on, and she couldn’t care less whether it has pink petunias on it or purple polka dots, as long as it doesn’t collapse. It’s as if, like a cat, she cannot see things unless they are moving. She is becoming even more indifferent to fashion, and strides around in improvised getups, a ski jacket, an old scarf, mitts that don’t match. She says she doesn’t care what it looks like as long as it keeps out the wind.
Worse, she’s taken up ice dancing; she goes to classes at the local indoor rink, and tangos and waltzes in time to tinny music, holding hands with other women. This is mortifying but at least she does it indoors, where no one can see her. I can only hope she won’t take to practicing, later when it’s really winter, on the outdoor rink, where somebody I might know could see her. But she isn’t even aware of the chagrin this could cause. She never says, What will people think? the way other mothers do, or are supposed to. She says she doesn’t give a hoot.
I think this is irresponsible of her. At the same time, the word hoot pleases me. It makes my mother into a non-mother, a sort of mutant owl. I have become picky about my own clothes, and given to looking at myself from behind with the aid of a hand mirror: although I may appear all right from the front, treachery could sneak up on me: a loose thread, a dropped hem. Not giving a boot would be a luxury. It describes the fine, irreverent carelessness I myself would like to cultivate, in these and other matters. My brother sits in one of the taper-legged blond chairs that go with the tables. He has become bigger and older, all of a sudden, when I wasn’t looking. He has a razor now. Because it’s the weekend and he hasn’t shaved, he has a line of fine bristles poking out of the skin around his mouth. He’s got on his moccasins, old ones he wears around the house, with holes worn under the big toes, and his V-neck maroon sweater with the ravels coming off the elbows. He resists my mother’s efforts to mend this sweater or replace it. My mother says frequently that she doesn’t give a hoot about clothes, but this indifference does not extend to holes, frayed edges, or dirt.
My brother’s ragged sweater and sievelike moccasins are the clothes he studies in. On weekdays he has to wear a jacket and tie and gray flannels, all or which are required at his school. He can’t have a ducktail, like the boys at my school, or even a crewcut: his hair is shaved up the back of the neck and parted at one side, like the hair of English choirboys. This too is a school requirement. With his hair cut this way he looks like an illustration from an adventure book of the 1920s or earlier, of which there are a number in our cellar, or like an Allied air officer from a comic book. He has that kind of nose, that kind of chin, although thinner: clean-cut, good-looking, old-fashioned. His eyes are like that too, a piercing, slightly fanatical blue. His scorn for boys who give a hoot about how they look is devastating. He calls them fruity clothes horses.
His school is a private school for brainy boys, though not an expensive one: you get in by passing tough exams. My parents asked me, a little anxiously, if I wanted to go to a private school for girls; they thought I’d feel left out if they didn’t make the effort for me too. I know about these schools, where you have to wear kilts and play field hockey. I said they were for snobs and had low academic standards, which was true. But in fact I wouldn’t be caught dead in a girls’ school. The idea fills me with claustrophobic panic: a school with nothing in it but girls would be like a trap.
My brother is listening to Jack Benny too. As he listens, he stuffs the cheese squares into his mouth with his left hand, but his right hand holds a pencil, and this hand is never still. He hardly looks at the scrap pad on which he’s doodling, but once in a while he tears off a sheet and crumples it up. These crumpled notes land on the floor. When I gather them up to put them into the wastebasket after the show, I see that they’re covered with numbers, long lines of numbers and symbols that go on and on, like writing, like a letter in code.
My brother sometimes has friends over. They sit in his room with the chess table between them, not moving except for their hands, which lift, hover over the board, plunge down. Sometimes they grunt or say “Aha” or “Trade you” or “Got you back”; or they exchange new, obscure good-natured insults:
“You surd!” “You square root!” “You throwback!” The captured chess pieces, knights and pawns and bishops, line up on the outskirts of the board. Once in a while, to see how the game is going, I bring in glasses of milk and vanilla-chocolate pinwheel cookies which I’ve made out of the Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook. This is a form of showing-off on my part, but it doesn’t get much response. They grunt, drink the milk with their left hands, stuff in the cookies, their eyes never leaving the board. The bishops topple, the queen falls, the king is encircled. “Mate in two,” they say. A finger comes down, knocks over the king. “Best of five.” And they start again.
In the evenings my brother studies. Sometimes he does this in a curious way. He stands on his head, to improve the circulation to his brain, or he throws spitballs at the ceiling. The area around his ceiling light fixture is pimply with little wads of once-chewed paper. At other times he indulges in manic bouts of physical activity: he splits huge piles of kindling, much more than is needed, or goes running down in the ravine, wearing disgraceful baggy pants and a forest-green sweater even more unraveled than his maroon one, and frayed gray running shoes that look like the kind you see one of in vacant lots. He says he’s training for the marathon.
A lot of the time my brother doesn’t seem aware of me. He’s thinking about other things, solemn things that are important. He sits at the dinner table, his right hand moving, pinching a breadcrust into pellets, staring at the wall behind my mother’s head, on which there is a picture of three milkweed pods in a vase, while my father explains why the human race is doomed. This time it’s because we’ve discovered insulin. All the diabetics aren’t dying the way they used to, they’re living long enough so that they’re passing the diabetes on to their children. Soon, by the law of geometric progression, we’ll all be diabetics, and since insulin is made from cows’ stomachs the whole world will be covered with insulin-producing cows, the parts that aren’t covered with human beings, who are reproducing much too rapidly for their own good anyway. The cows burp methane gas. Far too much methane gas is entering the atmosphere already, it will choke out the oxygen and perhaps cause the entire earth to become a giant greenhouse. The polar seas will melt and New York will be under six feet of water, not to mention many another coastal city. Also we have to worry about deserts, and erosion. If we don’t get burped to death by the cows we’ll end up like the Sahara Desert, says my father cheerfully, finishing up the meatloaf. My father has nothing against diabetics, or cows either. He just likes following chains of thought to their logical conclusions. My mother says it’s coffee soufflé for dessert.
Once my brother would have been more interested in the fate of the human race. Now he says that if the sun went supernova it would be eight minutes before we’d see it. He’s taking the long-range view. Sooner or later we’re going to be a cinder anyway, he implies, so why worry about a few cows more or less? Although he still collects butterfly sightings, he’s moving farther and farther away from biology. In the larger picture, we’re just a little green scuzz on the surface, says my brother. My father eats his coffee soufflé, frowning a little. My mother tactfully pours him a cup of tea. I see that the future of the human race is a battleground, that Stephen has won a point and my father has lost one. Whoever cares the most will lose.
I know more about my father than I used to know: I know he wanted to be a pilot in the war but could not, because the work he did was considered essential to the war effort. How spruce budworms could be essential to the war effort I have not yet figured out, but apparently they were. Maybe this is why he always drives so fast, maybe he’s heading for takeoff.
I know he grew up on a farm in the backwoods of Nova Scotia, where they didn’t have running water or electricity. This is why he can build things and chop things: everyone there could use an ax and a saw. He did his high school courses by correspondence, sitting at the kitchen table and studying by the light of a kerosene lamp; he put himself through university by working in lumber camps and cleaning out rabbit hutches, and was so poor that he lived in a tent in the summers to save money. He used to play country fiddle at square dances and was twenty-two before he heard an orchestra. All this is known, but unimaginable. Also I wish I did not know it. I want my father to be just my father, the way he has always been, not a separate person with an earlier, mythological life of his own. Knowing too much about other people puts you in their power, they have a claim on you, you are forced to understand their reasons for doing things and then you are weakened.
I harden my heart toward the fate of the human race, and calculate in my head how much money I’ll need to save to buy a new lamb’s-wool sweater. In Home Economics, which really means cooking and sewing, I’ve learned how to install a zipper and make a flat-fell seam, and now I make a lot of my clothes myself because it’s cheaper, although they don’t always turn out exactly like the picture on the front of the pattern. I get very little help from my mother on the fashion front, because whatever I wear she says it looks lovely, as long as it has no visible rents.
For advice I turn to Mrs. Finestein next door, for whom I baby-sit on weekends. “Blue is your color, honey,” she says. “Very gorgeous. And cerise. You’d look stunning in cerise.” Then she goes out for the evening with Mr. Finestein, her hair upswept, her mouth vivid, teetering in her tiny shoes with high heels, jingling with bracelets and dangly gold earrings, and I read The Little Engine That Could to Brian Finestein and tuck him into bed.
Sometimes Stephen and I still get stuck doing the dishes together, and then he remembers he’s my brother. I wash, he dries, and he asks me benign, avuncular, maddening questions, such as how do I like Grade Nine. He is in Grade Eleven, stairways and stairways above me; he doesn’t have to rub it in. But on some of these dish-drying nights he reverts to what I consider to be his true self. He tells me the nicknames of the teachers at his school, all of which are rude, such as The Armpit or The Human Stool. Or we invent new swearwords together, words that suggest an unspecific dirtiness. “Frut,” he says. I counter with “pronk,” which I tell him is a verb. We lean against the kitchen counter, doubled over with laughter, until our mother comes into the kitchen and says, “What are you two kids up to?”
Sometimes he decides that it’s his duty to educate me. He has a low opinion of most girls, it seems, and doesn’t want me turning into one of the ordinary kind. He doesn’t want me to be a pin-headed fuzzbrain. He thinks I’m in danger of becoming vain. In the mornings he stands outside the bathroom door and asks if I can bear to unstick myself from the mirror.
He thinks I should develop my mind. In order to help me do this, he makes a Möbius strip for me by cutting out a long slip of paper, twisting it once and gluing the ends together. This Möbius strip has only one side, you can prove it by running your finger along the surface. According to Stephen, this is a way of visualizing infinity. He draws me a Klein bottle, which has no outside and no inside, or rather the outside and the inside are the same. I have more trouble with the Klein bottle than the Möbius strip, probably because it’s a bottle, and I can’t think of a bottle that isn’t intended to contain something. I can’t see the point of it.
Stephen says he’s interested in the problems of two-dimensional universes. He wants me to imagine what a three-dimensional universe would look like to someone who was perfectly flat. If you stood in a two-dimensional universe you would only be perceived at the point of intersection, you’d be perceived as two oblong discs, two two-dimensional cross sections of your own feet. Then there are five-dimensional universes, seven-dimensional ones. I try very hard to picture these but I can’t seem to get past three.
“Why three?” says Stephen. This is a favorite technique of his, asking me questions to which he knows the answers, or other answers.
“Because that’s how many there are,” I say.
“That’s how many we perceive, you mean,” he says. “We’re limited by our own sensory equipment. How do you think a fly sees the world?” I know how a fly perceives the world, I’ve seen many flies’
eyes, through microscopes. “In facets,” I say. “But each facet would still have only three dimensions.”
“Point taken,” he says, which makes me feel grown-up, worthy of this conversation. “But actually we perceive four.”
“Four?” I say.
“Time is a dimension,” he says. “You can’t separate it from space. Space-time is what we live in.” He says there are no such things as discrete objects which remain unchanged, set apart from the flow of time. He says space-time is curved and that in curved space-time the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line but a line following the curve. He says that time can be stretched or shrunk, and that it runs faster in some places than in others. He says that if you put one identical twin in a high-speed rocket for a week, he’d come back to find his brother ten years older than he is himself. I say I think that would be sad.
My brother smiles. He says the universe is like a dot-covered balloon that’s being blown up. The dots are the stars; they’re moving farther and farther away from one another all the time. He says that one of the really interesting questions is whether the universe is infinite and unbounded, or infinite but bounded, like the balloon idea. All I can think of in connection with a balloon is the explosion when it breaks. He says that space is mostly empty and that matter is not really solid. It’s just a bunch of widely spaced atoms moving at greater or lesser speeds. Anyway, matter and energy are aspects of each other. It’s as if everything is made of solid light. He says that if we knew enough we could walk through walls as if they were air, if we knew enough we could go faster than light, and at that point space would become time and time would become space and we would be able to travel through time, back into the past. This is the first of these ideas of his that has really interested me. I’d like to see dinosaurs and a good many other things, such as the Ancient Egyptians. On the other hand there’s something menacing about this notion. I’m not so sure I want to travel back into the past. I’m not so sure I want to be that impressed, either, by everything he says. It gives him too much of an advantage. Anyway it isn’t a sensible way to talk. A lot of it sounds like comic books, the kind with ray guns. So I say, “What good would that be?”
He smiles. “If you could do it, you’d know you could do it,” is what he says. I tell Cordelia that Stephen says we could walk through walls if we knew enough. This is the only one of his latest ideas I can trust myself to expound, at the moment. The rest are too complicated, or bizarre. Cordelia laughs. She says that Stephen is a brain and that if he weren’t so cute he’d be a pill. Stephen has a summer job this summer, teaching canoeing at a boys’ camp, but I don’t, because I’m only thirteen. I go with my parents up to the north, near Sault Ste. Marie, where my father is overseeing an experimental colony of tent caterpillars in screened-in cages.
Stephen writes me letters, in pencil, on pages torn from lined workbooks, in which he ridicules everything he can get his hands on, including his fellow camp instructors and the girls they go drooling around after on their days off. He describes these instructors with pimples popping from their skins, fangs sprouting in their mouths, their tongues hanging out like those of dogs, their eyes crossed in permanent, girl-inspired imbecility. This makes me think I have power, of a sort. Or will have it: I too am a girl. I go fishing by myself, mostly so I’ll have something to put in my letters to him. Other than that I don’t have much to tell. Cordelia’s letters are in real ink, black in color. They are full of superlatives and exclamation marks. She dots her I’s with little round circles, like Orphan Annie eyes, or bubbles. She signs them with things like,
“Yours till Niagara Falls,” “Yours till the cookie crumbles,” or “Yours till the sea wears rubber pants to keep its bottom dry.”
“I am so bored!!! ” she writes, with triple underlining. She sounds enthusiastic even about boredom. And yet her burbly style does not ring true. I have seen her, sometimes, when she thinks I’m not looking: her face goes still, remote, unreflecting. It’s as if she’s not inside it. But then she’ll turn and laugh. “Don’t you just love it when they roll up their sleeves and tuck the cigarette pack inside?” she’ll say. “That takes biceps!” And she will be back to normal.
I feel as if I’m marking time. I swim in the lake provided, and eat raisins and crackers spread thickly with peanut butter and honey while reading detective stories, and sulk because there’s no one my age around. My parents’ relentless cheer is no comfort. It would almost be better if they could be as surly as I am, or surlier; this would make me feel more ordinary.
Nine - Leprosy
I n late morning the phone wakes me. It’s Charna. “Hey,” she says. “We made the front page of Entertainment, and three, count them, three pictures! It’s a real rave!”
I shudder at her idea of a rave; and what does she mean, we? But she’s pleased: I’ve graduated from Living to Entertainment, this is a good sign. I remember when I had ideas about eternal greatness, when I wanted to be Leonardo da Vinci. Now I’m in with the rock groups and the latest movie. Art is what you can get away with, said somebody or other, which makes it sound like shoplifting or some other minor crime. And maybe that’s all it ever was, or is: a kind of stealing. A hijacking of the visual. I know it will be bad news. Still, I can’t resist. I pull on my clothes, go down in search of the nearest paper box. I do have the decency to wait until I get upstairs before I open the paper. The bold print says: CROTCHETY ARTIST STILL HAS POWER TO DISTURB. I take note: artist instead of painter, the foreboding still, sign-pointing the way to senility. Andrea the acorn-headed ingénue getting her own back. I’m surprised she’d use an old-fashioned word like crotchety. It manages to suggest both crotches and crocheting, both of which seem appropriate. But probably she didn’t write the headline.
There are indeed three photos. One is of my head, shot a little from beneath so it looks as if I have a double chin. The other two are of paintings. One is of Mrs. Smeath, bare-naked, flying heavily through the air. The church spire with the onion on it is in the distance. Mr. Smeath is stuck to her back like an asparagus beetle, grinning like a maniac; both of them have shiny brown insect wings, done to scale and meticulously painted. Erbug, The Annunciation, it’s called. The other is of Mrs. Smeath by herself, with a sickle-moon paring knife and a skinless potato, unclad from the waist up and the thighs down. This is from the Empire Bloomers series. The newspaper photos don’t do these paintings justice, because there’s no color. They look too much like snapshots. I know that in real life the bloomers on Mrs. Smeath are an intense indigo blue that took me weeks to get right, a blue that appears to radiate a dark and stifling light.
I scan the first paragraph: “Eminent artist Elaine Risley returns to hometown Toronto this week for a long overdue retrospective.” Eminent, the mausoleum word. I might as well climb onto the marble slab right now and pull the bedsheet over my head. There are the usual misquotations, nor does my blue jogging suit escape comment. “Elaine Risley, looking anything but formidable in a powder-blue jogging suit that’s seen better days, nevertheless can come out with a few pungent and deliberately provocative comments on women today.”
I suck in some coffee, skip to the last paragraph: the inevitable eclectic, the obligatory post-feminist, a however and a despite. Good old Toronto bet hedging and qualification. A blistering attack would be preferable, some flying fur, a little fire and brimstone. That way I would know I’m still alive. I think savagely of the opening. Perhaps I should be deliberately provocative, perhaps I should confirm their deepest suspicions. I could strap on some of Jon’s axmurder special effects, the burnt face with its one peeled bloodshot eye, the plastic blood-squirting arm. Or slip my feet into the hollow casts of feet and lurch in like something from a mad scientist movie.
I won’t do these things, but thinking about them is soothing. It distances the entire thing, reduces it to a farce or prank, in which I have no involvement aside from mockery.
Cordelia will see this piece in the paper, and maybe she will laugh. Even though she’s not in the phone book, she must still be around here somewhere. It would be like her to have changed her name. Or maybe she’s married; maybe she’s married more than once. Women are hard to keep track of, most of them. They slip into other names, and sink without a trace.
At any rate she’ll see this. She’ll know it’s Mrs. Smeath, she’ll get a kick out of that. She’ll know it’s me, and she’ll come. She’ll come in the door and she’ll see herself, titled, framed, and dated, hanging on the wall. She will be unmistakable: the long line of jaw, the slightly crooked lip. She appears to be in a room, alone; a room with walls of a pastel green.
This is the only picture I ever did of Cordelia, Cordelia by herself. Half a Face, it’s called: an odd title, because Cordelia’s entire face is visible. But behind her, hanging on the wall, like emblems in the Renaissance, or those heads of animals, moose or bear, you used to find in northern bars, is another face, covered with a white cloth. The effect is of a theatrical mask. Perhaps. I had trouble with this picture. It was hard for me to fix Cordelia in one time, at one age. I wanted her about thirteen, looking out with that defiant, almost belligerent stare of hers. So?
But the eyes sabotaged me. They aren’t strong eyes; the look they give the face is tentative, hesitant, reproachful. Frightened.
Cordelia is afraid of me, in this picture.
I am afraid of Cordelia.
I’m not afraid of seeing Cordelia. I’m afraid of being Cordelia. Because in some way we changed places, and I’ve forgotten when.
A fter the summer I’m in Grade Ten. Although I’m still shorter, still younger, I have grown. Specifically, I’ve grown breasts. I have periods now, like normal girls; I too am among the knowing, I too can sit out volleyball games and go to the nurse’s for aspirin and waddle along the halls with a pad like a flattened rabbit tail wadded between my legs, sopping with liver-colored blood. There are satisfactions in this. I shave my legs, not because there’s much to shave but because it makes me feel good. I sit in the bathtub, scraping away at my calves, which I wish were thicker, bulgier, like the calves of cheerleaders, while my brother mutters outside.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most beautiful of all?” he says.
“Go away,” I say tranquilly. I now have that privilege.
In school I am silent and watchful. I do my homework. Cordelia plucks her eyebrows into two thin lines, thinner than mine, and paints her nails Fire and Ice. She loses things, such as combs and also her French homework. She laughs raucously in the halls. She comes up with new, complicated swearwords: excrement of the ungulate, she says, meaning bullshit, and great flaming blue-eyed bald-headed Jesus. She takes up smoking and gets caught doing it in the girls’ washroom. It must be hard for the teachers, looking, to figure out why we are friends, what we’re doing together. Today on the way home it snows. Big soft caressing flakes fall onto our skin like cold moths; the air fills with feathers. Cordelia and I are elated, we racket along the sidewalk through the twilight while the cars drift past us, hushed and slowed by the snow. We sing:
Remember the name
Of Lydia Pinkham,
Whose remedies for women brought her FAME!
This is a singing commercial from the radio. We don’t know what Lydia Pinkham’s remedies are, but anything that says “for women” on it has to do with monthly blood or some equally unspeakable female thing, and so we think it’s funny. Also we sing:
Night and day you torture me,
There goes my eyeball
Into my highball….
Part of your heart,
That’s what I’m eating now,
Too bad we bad to part….
We sing these, and other parodies of popular songs, all of which we think are very witty. We run and slide, in our rubber boots with the tops turned down, and make snowballs which we throw at lampposts, at fire hydrants, bravely at passing cars, and as close as we dare at people walking on the sidewalk, women most of them, with shopping bags or dogs. We have to set our school books down to make the snowballs. Our aim is poor and we don’t hit much of anything, though we hit a woman in a fur coat, from behind, by mistake. She turns and scowls at us and we run away, around a corner and up a side street, laughing so much with terror and embarrassment we can hardly stand up. Cordelia throws herself backward onto a snow-covered lawn. “The evil eye!” she shrieks. For some reason I don’t like the sight of her lying there in the snow, arms spread out.
“Get up,” I say. “You’ll catch pneumonia.”
“So?” says Cordelia. But she gets up.
The streetlights come on, though it isn’t yet dark. We reach the place where the cemetery begins, on the other side of the street.
“Remember Grace Smeath?” Cordelia says.
I say yes. I do remember her, but not clearly, not continuously. I remember her from the time I first knew her, and later, sitting in the apple orchard with a crown of flowers on her head; and much later, when she was in Grade Eight and about to go off to high school. I don’t even know what high school she went to. I remember her freckles, her little smile, her coarse horsehair braids.
“They rationed their toilet paper,” Cordelia says. “Four squares a time, even for Number Two. Did you know that?”
“No,” I say. But it seems to me that I did know it, once.
“Remember that black soap they had?” says Cordelia. “Remember? It smelled like tar.”
I know what we’re doing now: we’re making fun of the Smeath family. Cordelia remembers all kinds of things: the greying underwear dripping on the clothesline in the cellar, the kitchen paring knife that was worn right down to a sliver, the winter coats from the Eaton’s Catalogue. Simpsons is the right place to shop, according to Cordelia. That’s where we go now on Saturday mornings, bareheaded, jerking downtown stop by stop on the streetcar. And shopping from the Eaton’s Catalogue is much worse than shopping at Eaton’s.
“The Lump-lump Family!” Cordelia shouts into the snowy air. It’s cruel and appropriate; we snort with laughter, “What does the Lump-lump Family have for dinner? Plates of gristle!”
Now it’s a full-blown game. What color is their underwear? Grunt color. Why did Mrs. Lump-lump have a Band-Aid on her face? Cut herself shaving. Anything can be said about them, invented about them. They’re defenseless, they’re at our mercy. We picture the two adult Lump-lumps making love, but this is too much for us, it can’t be done, it’s too vomit-making. Vomit-making is a new word, from Perdie.
“What does Grace Lump-lump do for fun? Pops her pimples!” Cordelia laughs so hard she doubles over and almost falls down. “Stop, stop, you’ll make me pee,” she says. She says that Grace started to grow pimples in Grade Eight: by now they must have increased in number. This is not made up but true. We relish the thought.
The Smeaths in our rendition of them are charmless, miserly, heavy as dough, boring as white margarine, which we claim they eat for dessert. We ridicule their piety, their small economies, the size of their feet, their rubber plant, which sums them up. We speak of them in the present tense, as if we still know them. This for me is a deeply satisfying game. I can’t account for my own savagery; I don’t question why I’m enjoying it so much, or why Cordelia is playing it, insists on playing it, whips it to life again when it seems to be flagging. She looks at me sideways, as if estimating how far, how much farther I’ll go in what we both know, surely, is base treachery. I have a fleeting image of Grace once more, disappearing into her house through the front door, in her skirt with the straps, her pilly sweater. She was adored, by all of us. But she is not any more. And in Cordelia’s version, now, she never was. We run across the street in the falling snow, open the small wrought-iron gate in the cemetery fence, go in. We’ve never done this before.
This is the raw end of the cemetery. The trees are only saplings; they look even more temporary without their leaves. Much of the ground is untouched, but there are scars like giant claw marks, diggings, earthworks going on. The gravestones are few and recent: blockish oblongs of granite polished to a Presbyterian gloss, the letters cut plainly and without any attempt at prettiness. They remind me of men’s overcoats.
We walk among these gravestones, pointing out which ones—particularly gray, particularly oafish—the Lump-lump Family would choose to bury one another beneath. From here we can look through the chain-link fence and see the houses on the other side of the street. Grace Smeath’s is one of them. It’s strange and oddly pleasant to think that she might be inside it at this very moment, inside that ordinary-looking brick box with the white porch pillars, not knowing a thing about what we’ve just been saying about her. Mrs. Smeath might be in there, lying on the velvet chesterfield, the afghan spread over her; I remember this much. The rubber plant will be on the landing, not much bigger. Rubber plants grow slowly. We are bigger though, and the house looks small.
The cemetery stretches out before us, acres and acres. Now the ravine is on our left, with the new concrete bridge just visible. I have a quick memory of the old bridge, of the creek beneath it: under our feet the dead people must be dissolving, turning to water, cold and clear, flowing downhill. But I forget about this immediately. Nothing about the cemetery is frightening, I tell myself. It’s too pragmatic, too ugly, too neat. It’s only like a kitchen shelf, where you put things away. We walk for a while without speaking, not knowing where we’re going, or why. The trees are taller, the tombstones older. There are Celtic crosses now, and the occasional angel.
“How do we get out of here?” says Cordelia, laughing a little.
“If we keep going we’ll hit a road,” I say. “Isn’t that the traffic?”
“I need a ciggie-poo,” Cordelia says. We find a bench and sit down so Cordelia can free her hands for the cigarette, cupping it against the air, lighting it. She isn’t wearing gloves, or a scarf on her head. She has a tiny black and gold lighter.
“Look at all the little dead people houses,” she says.
“Mausoleums,” I say knowingly.
“The Lump-lump Family Mausoleum,” she says, giving the joke one last push.
“They wouldn’t have one,” I say. “Too ritzy.”
“Eaton,” Cordelia reads. “That must be the store, it’s the same lettering. The Eaton’s Catalogues are buried in there.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Catalogue,” I say.
“I wonder if they’re wearing foundation garments,” says Cordelia, inhaling. We’re trying for a return to our hilarity, but it isn’t working, I think of the Eatons, both of them or maybe more, tucked away for storage as if they’re fur coats or gold watches, in their private tomb, which is all the stranger for being shaped like a Greek temple. Where exactly are they, inside there? On biers? In cobwebby stone-lidded coffins, as in the horror comics? I think of their jewels, glinting in the dark—of course they would have jewels—and of their long dry hair. Your hair grows after you’re dead, also your fingernails. I don’t know how I know this.
“Mrs. Eaton is really a vampire, you know,” I say slowly. “She comes out at night. She’s dressed in a long white ballgown. That door creaks open and she comes out.”
“To drink the blood of Lump-lumps out too late,” says Cordelia hopefully, stubbing out her cigarette. I refuse to laugh. “No, seriously,” I say. “She does. I happen to know.”
Cordelia looks at me nervously. The snow is falling, it’s twilight, there’s nobody here but us. “Yeah?” she says, waiting for the joke.
“Yes,” I say. “We sometimes go together. Because I’m a vampire too.”
“You’re not,” says Cordelia, standing up, brushing off the snow. She’s smiling uncertainly.
“How do you know?” I say. “How do you know?”
“You walk around in the daytime,” Cordelia says.
“That’s not me,” I say. “That’s my twin. You’ve never known, but I’m one of a twins. Identical ones, you can’t tell us apart by looking. Anyway it’s just the sun I have to avoid. On days like this it’s perfectly safe. I have a coffin full of earth where I sleep; it’s down in, down in”—I search for a likely place—“the cellar.”
“You’re being silly,” Cordelia says.
I stand up too. “Silly?” I say. I lower my voice. “I’m just telling you the truth. You’re my friend, I thought it was time you knew. I’m really dead. I’ve been dead for years.”
“You can stop playing that,” says Cordelia sharply. I’m surprised at how much pleasure this gives me, to know she’s so uneasy, to know I have this much power over her.
“Playing what?” I say. “I’m not playing. But you don’t have to worry. I won’t suck any of your blood. You’re my friend.”
“Don’t be a brat,” says Cordelia.
“In a minute,” I say, “we’re going to be locked in.” It strikes both of us that this may be the truth. We run along the roadway, gasping and laughing, and find a large gateway, which is luckily still open. Beyond it is Yonge Street, lined with rush-hour traffic.
Cordelia wants to point out Lump-lump Family cars, but I’m tired of this. I have a denser, more malevolent little triumph to finger: energy has passed between us, and I am stronger.
N ow I’m in Grade Eleven, and as tall as many other girls, which is not very tall. I have a charcoal-gray pencil skirt that’s hard to walk in despite the kick pleat, and a bat wing sweater, a red one with modulated gray horizontal stripes across it. I have a wide black elastic cinch belt with an imitation gold clasp buckle, and flat ballerina shoes of velveteen that scuff as I walk and bulge out at the sides. I have a shortie coat to go with the pencil skirt. This is the look: boxy and flared at the top, with a long skinny stem of thighs and legs coming out the bottom. I have a mean mouth.
I have such a mean mouth that I become known for it. I don’t use it unless provoked, but then I open my mean mouth and short, devastating comments come out of it. I hardly have to think them up, they’re just there suddenly, like thought balloons with light bulbs in them. “Don’t be a pain” and “Takes one to know one” are standard repartee among girls, but I go much farther than that. I’m willing to say pain in the ass, which skirts good taste, and to go in for crushing inventions, such as The Walking Pimple and The Before Part of an Arrid Armpit Ad. If any girl calls me a brain, I say, “Better a brain than a pin-headed moron like you.” “Use much hair grease?” I will say, or “Suck much?” I know where the weak spots are.
“Suck” is an especially satisfying word, especially annihilating. Boys say it mostly, to one another; it suggests thumbs and babies. I haven’t yet considered what else might be sucked, or under what circumstances.
Girls at school learn to look out for my mean mouth and avoid it. I walk the halls surrounded by an aura of potential verbal danger, and am treated with caution, which suits me fine. Strangely enough, my mean behavior doesn’t result in fewer friends, but, on the surface, more. The girls are afraid of me but they know where it’s safest: beside me, half a step behind. “Elaine is a riot,” they say, without conviction. Some of them are already collecting china and housewares, and have Hope Chests. For this kind of thing I feel amused disdain. And yet it disturbs me to learn I have hurt someone unintentionally. I want all my hurts to be intentional.
I don’t have occasion to use my mean mouth on boys, since they don’t say provoking things to me. Except for Stephen, of course. These days we trade verbal meannesses as a kind of game, like badminton. Got you. Got you back. I can usually silence him with, “Where’d you get that haircut?
Lawnmowerville?” He’s sensitive about the haircut. Or, when he’s all spiffed up in his private school gray flannels and jacket: “Hey, you look like a Simpsons Rep.” Simpsons Reps are sucky kids who appear in high school yearbooks wearing blazers with crests on the pockets, looking clean-cut, and advertising Simpsons.
My father says, “Your sharp tongue will get you in trouble some day, young lady.” Young lady is a sign that I’ve gone too daringly close to some edge or other, but although it silences me for the moment it doesn’t tone me down. I’ve come to enjoy the risk, the sensation of vertigo when I realize that I’ve shot right over the border of the socially acceptable, that I’m walking on thin ice, on empty air. The person I use my mean mouth on the most is Cordelia. She doesn’t even have to provoke me, I use her as target practice. We sit on the hill overlooking the football field, wearing our jeans, which are only allowed at school on the days of football games. We have our overlong pant cuffs pinned up with blanket pins, the latest thing. The cheerleaders leap around in their mid-thigh skirts, waving their paper pom-poms; they don’t look long-legged and golden, like the cheerleaders at the back of Life magazine, but ill-assorted, dumpy, and dark. However I still envy their calves. The football team jogs on. Cordelia says, “That Gregory! What a hunk,” and I say, “Of cheese.” Cordelia gives me a hurt look. “I think he’s a doll.” “If you like them covered with corn oil,” I say. When she says it’s a bad idea to sit down on the high school toilet seats without wiping them off first because you might get a disease, I say, “Who told you that? Your Mummie?”
I make fun of her favorite singers. “Love, love, love,” I say. “They’re always moaning.” I have developed a searing contempt for gushiness and schmaltz. Frank Sinatra is The Singing Marshmallow, Betty Hutton is The Human Grindstone. Anyway, these people are out of date, they are sentimental mushballs. The real truth is to be found in rock and roll: “Hearts Made of Stone” is more like it. Sometimes Cordelia can think of things to say back, but sometimes she can’t. She says, “That’s cruel.”
Or she sticks her tongue in the side of her mouth and changes the subject. Or she lights a cigarette. I sit in History class, doodling on the side of the page. We are taking the Second World War. The teacher is an enthusiast, he’s hopping around at the front of the room, waving his arms and his pointer. He’s a short man with an unruly strand of hair and a limp, who may have been in the war himself, or so rumor goes. On the board he’s drawn a large map of Europe, in white, with yellow dotted lines for the borders between countries. Hitler’s armies invade, by means of pink chalk arrows. Now it’s the Anschluss, and now Poland falls, and now France. I draw tulips and trees, putting a line for the ground and including the root systems in every case. Submarines appear in the English Channel, in green. I draw the face of the girl sitting across the aisle from me. The Blitz is on, bombs drift down through the air like sinister silver angels, London is disintegrating block by block, house by house, mantelpieces, chimneys, double beds hand-carved and passed down through the generations blasted into burning splinters, history reduced to shards. “It was the end of an era,” says the teacher. It’s hard for us to understand, he says, but nothing will ever be the same again. He is deeply moved by this, you can tell, it’s embarrassing. The same as what? I think.
It’s incredible to me that I myself was alive when all those chalk things were going on, all those statistical deaths. I was alive when women wore those ridiculous clothes with the big shoulder pads and the nipped-in waists, with peplums over their bums like backward aprons. I draw a woman with wide shoulders and a picture hat. I draw my own hand. Hands are the hardest. It’s difficult to keep them from looking like clumps of sausages.
I go out with boys. This is not part of a conscious plan, it just happens. My relationships with boys are effortless, which means that I put very little effort into them. It’s girls I feel awkward with, it’s girls I feel I have to defend myself against; not boys. I sit in my bedroom picking the pilly fuzzballs off my lambswool sweaters and the phone will ring. It will be a boy. I take the sweater into the hall, where the phone is, and sit on the hall chair with the receiver cradled between my ear and shoulder and continue to pick off the fuzzballs, while a long conversation goes on that is mostly silence.
Boys by nature require these silences; they must not be startled by too many words, spoken too quickly. What they actually say is not that important. The important parts exist in the silences between the words. I know what we’re both looking for, which is escape. They want to escape from adults and other boys, I want to escape from adults and other girls. We’re looking for desert islands, momentary, unreal, but there.
My father paces the living room, jingling his keys and small change in his pockets. He’s impatient, he can’t help hearing these monosyllables, these murmurs, these silences. He walks into the hall and makes snipping motions with his fingers, meaning I’m to cut it short. “I have to go now,” I say. The boy makes a sound like air coming out of an inner tube. I understand it.
I know things about boys. I know what goes on in their heads, about girls and women, things they can’t admit to other boys, or to anyone. They’re fearful about their own bodies, shy about what they say, afraid of being laughed at. I know what kind of talk goes on among them as they horse around in the locker room, sneak cigarettes behind the field house. Stunned broad, dog, bag and bitch are words they apply to girls, as well as worse words. I don’t hold these words against them. I know these words are another version of pickled ox eyes and snot eating, they’re prove-it words boys need to exchange, to show they are strong and not to be taken in. The words don’t necessarily mean they don’t like real girls, or one real girl. Sometimes real girls are an alternative to these words and sometimes they’re an incarnation of them, and sometimes they’re just background noise.
I don’t think any of these words apply to me. They apply to other girls, girls who walk along the high school halls in ignorance of them, swinging their hair, swaying their little hips as if they think they’re seductive, talking too loudly and carelessly to one another, fooling nobody; or else acting pastel, blank, daisy-fresh. And all the time these clouds of silent words surround them, stunned broad, dog, bag and bitch, pointing at them, reducing them, cutting them down to size so they can be handled. The trick with these silent words is to walk in the spaces between them, turn sideways in your head, evade. Like walking through walls.
This is what I know about boys in general. None of it has to do with individual boys by themselves, the boys I go out with. These boys are usually older than I am, although they aren’t the kind with greasy ducktails and a lot of leather, they’re nicer than that. When I go out with them I’m supposed to be home on time. If I’m not, my father has long conversations with me in which he explains that being home on time is like being on time for a train. If I were to be late for a train, I would miss the train, wouldn’t I?
“But this house isn’t a train,” I say. “It’s not going anywhere.” My father is exasperated; he jingles his keys in his pocket. “That’s not the point,” he says.
What my mother says is, “We worry.” “What about?” I say. There’s nothing to worry about, as far as I can see.
My parents are a liability in this as in other matters. They won’t buy a television, like everyone else, because my father says it turns you into a cretin and emits harmful radiation and subliminal messages as well. When the boys come to pick me up, my father emerges from the cellar wearing his old gray felt hat and carrying a hammer or a saw, and grips their hands in his bear paw handshake. He assesses them with his shrewd, twinkly, ironic little eyes and calls them “sir,” as if they’re his graduate students. My mother goes into her nice lady act and says almost nothing. Or else she tells me I look sweet, right in front of the boys.
In the spring they appear around the corner of the house in their baggy gardening pants, smudged with mud, to see me off. They drag the boys out to the backyard, where there is now a large pile of cement blocks accumulated by my father for some future contingency. They want the boys to see their display of irises, as if these boys are old ladies; and the boys have to say something about the irises, although irises are the last thing on their minds. Or else my father attempts to engage them in improving conversation about current topics, or asks them if they’ve read this book or that one, pulling books from the bookshelves while the boys shift on their feet. “Your father’s a card,” the boys say uneasily, later. My parents are like younger, urchinlike brothers and sisters whose faces are dirty and who blurt out humiliating things that can neither be anticipated nor controlled. I sign and make the best of it. I feel I’m older than they are, much older. I feel ancient.
What I do with the boys is nothing to worry about. It’s normal. We go to movies, where we sit in the smoking section and neck, or we go to drive-ins and eat popcorn and neck there as well. There are rules for necking, which we observe: approach, push away, approach, push away. Garter belts are going too far and so are brassieres. No zippers. The boys mouths taste of cigarettes and salt, their skin smells like Old Spice after-shave. We go to dances and twirl around during the rock numbers, or shuffle in the blue light, surrounded by the shuffling of the other couples. After formal dances we go to someone’s house or to the St. Charles Restaurant, and after that we neck, though not for long because the time has usually run out. For formal dances I have dresses which I sew myself because I can’t afford to buy them. They have layers of tulle and are propped up underneath with crinolines, and I worry about the hooks coming unfastened. I have shoes in matching satin or silver straps, I have earrings which pinch like hell. For these dances the boys send corsages, which I press afterward and keep in my bureau drawer: squashed carnations and brown-edged rosebuds, wads of dead vegetation, like a collection of floral shrunken heads.
My brother Stephen treats these boys with scorn. As far as he’s concerned they are dimwits and unworthy of my serious consideration. He laughs at them behind their backs and makes fun of their names. They are not George but Georgie-Porgie, not Roger but Rover. He makes bets as to how long each one will last. “Three months for him,” he’ll say, after seeing the boy for the first time; or, “When are you going to throw him over?”
I don’t dislike my brother for this. I expect it of him, because he’s partly right. I don’t feel about these boys the way girls do in true romance comic books. I don’t sit around wondering when they’ll call. I like them but I don’t fall in love with them. None of the teenage magazine descriptions of girls moping, one tear on each cheek like pearl earrings, applies to me. So partly the boys are not a serious matter. But at the same time they are.
The serious part is their bodies. I sit in the hall with the cradled telephone, and what I hear is their bodies. I don’t listen much to the words but to the silences, and in the silences these bodies re-create themselves, are created by me, take form. When I am lonely for boys it’s their bodies I miss. I study their hands lifting the cigarettes in the darkness of the movie theaters, the slope of a shoulder, the angle of a hip. Looking at them sideways, I examine them in different lights. My love for them is visual: that is the part of them I would like to possess. Don’t move, I think. Stay like that. Let me have that. What power they have over me is held through the eyes, and when I’m tired of them it’s an exhaustion partly physical, but also partly visual.
Only some of this has to do with sex; although some of it does. Some of the boys have cars, but others do not, and with them I go on buses, on streetcars, on the newly opened Toronto subway that is clean and uneventful and looks like a long pastel-tiled bathroom. These boys walk me home, we walk the long way around. The air smells of lilac or mown grass or burning leaves, depending on the season. We walk over the new cement footbridge, with the willow trees arching overhead, the sound of running water from the creek beneath. We stand in the dim light coming from the lampposts on the bridge and lean back against the railing, their arms around me and mine around them. We lift each other’s clothing, run our hands over each other’s backbones, and I feel the backbone tensed and strung to breaking. I feel the length of the whole body, I touch the face, amazed. The faces of the boys change so much, they soften, open up, they ache. The body is pure energy, solidified light.
A girl is found murdered, down in the ravine. Not the ravine near our house, but a larger branch of it, farther south, past the brickworks, where the Don River, willow-bordered, junk-strewn and dingy, winds sluggishly toward the lake. Such things are not supposed to happen in Toronto, where people leave their back doors unlocked, their windows unlatched at night; but they do happen, it seems. It’s on the front pages of all the papers.
This girl is our age. Her bicycle has been found near her. She has been strangled, and also molested. We know what molested means. There are photos of her when alive, which already have that haunted look such photos usually take years to acquire, the look of vanished time, unrecoverable, unredeemed. There are extensive descriptions of her clothing. She was wearing an angora sweater, and a little fur collar with pom-poms, of the sort that is currently fashionable. I don’t have a collar like this, but would like one. Hers was white but you can get them in mink. She was wearing a pin on the sweater, in the shape of two birds with red glass jewels for eyes. It’s what anyone would wear to school. All these details about her clothing strike me as unfair, although I devour them. It doesn’t seem right that you can just walk out one day, wearing ordinary clothes, and be murdered without warning, and then have all those people looking at you, examining you. Murder ought to be a more ceremonial occasion. I have long since dismissed the idea of bad men in the ravine. I’ve considered them a scarecrow story, put up by mothers. But it appears they exist, despite me.
This murdered girl troubles me. After the first shock, nobody at school says much about her. Even Cordelia does not want to talk about her. It’s as if this girl has done something shameful, herself, by being murdered. So she goes to that place where all things go that are not mentionable, taking her blond hair, her angora sweater, her ordinariness with her. She stirs up something, like dead leaves. I think of a doll I had once, with white fur on the border of her skirt. I remember being afraid of this doll. I haven’t thought about that in years.
Cordelia and I sit at the dining table doing our homework. I am helping Cordelia, I’m trying to explain the atom to her, but she’s refusing to take it seriously. The diagram of the atom has a nucleus, with electrons circling it. The nucleus looks like a raspberry, the electrons and their rings look like the planet Saturn. Cordelia sticks her tongue in the side of her mouth and frowns at the nucleus. “This looks like a raspberry,” she says.
“Cordelia,” I say. “The exam is tomorrow.” Molecules do not interest her, she doesn’t seem able to grasp the Periodic Table. She refuses to understand mass, she refuses to understand why atom bombs blow up. There’s a picture of one blowing up in the Physics book, mushroom cloud and all. To her it’s just another bomb. “Mass and energy are different aspects,” I tell her. “That’s why E = mc2.”
“It would be easier if Percy the Prude weren’t such a creep,” she says. Percy the Prude is the Physics teacher. He has red hair that stands up at the top like Woody Woodpecker’s, and he lisps. Stephen walks through the room, looks over our shoulders. “So they’re still teaching you kiddie Physics,”
he says indulgently. “They’ve still got the atom looking like a raspberry.”
“See?” says Cordelia.
I feel subverted. “This is the atom that’s going to be on the exam, so you’d better learn it,” I say to Cordelia. To Stephen I say, “So what does it really look like?”
“A lot of empty space,” Stephen says. “It’s hardly there at all. It’s just a few specks held in place by forces. At the subatomic level, you can’t even say that matter exists. You can only say that it has a tendency to exist.”
“You’re confusing Cordelia,” I say. Cordelia has lit a cigarette and is looking out the window, where several squirrels are chasing one another around the lawn. She is paying no attention to any of this. Stephen considers Cordelia. “Cordelia has a tendency to exist,” is what he says. Cordelia doesn’t go out with boys the way I do, although she does go out with them. Once in a while I arrange double dates, through whatever boy I’m going out with. Cordelia’s date is always a boy of lesser value, and she knows this and refuses to approve of him.
Cordelia can’t seem to decide what kind of boy she really does approve of. The ones with haircuts like my brother’s are drips and pills, but the ones with ducktails are sleazy greaseballs, although sexy. She thinks the boys I go out with, who go no further than crewcuts, are too juvenile for her. She’s abandoned her ultrared lipstick and nail polish and her turned-up collars and has taken up moderate pinks and going on diets, and grooming. This is what magazines call it: Good Grooming, as in horses. Her hair is shorter, her wardrobe more subdued.
But something about her makes boys uneasy. It’s as if she’s too attentive to them, too polite, studied and overdone. She laughs when she thinks they’ve made a joke and says, “That’s very witty, Stan.” She will say this even when they haven’t intended to be funny, and then they aren’t sure whether or not she’s making fun of them. Sometimes she is, sometimes she isn’t. Inappropriate words slip out of her. After we’ve finished our hamburgers and fries she turns to the boys and says brightly, “Are you sufficiently sophonsified?” and they gape at her. They are not the kind or boys who would have napkin rings. She asks them leading questions, tries to draw them into conversations, as a grown-up would do, not appearing to know that the best thing, with them, is to let them exist in their own silences, to look at them only out of the corners of the eyes. Cordelia tries to look at them sincerely, head-on; they are blinded by the glare, and freeze like rabbits in a headlight. When she’s in the back seat with them I can tell, from the breathing and gasps, that she’s going too far in that direction as well. “She’s kind of strange, your friend,”
the boys say to me, but they can’t say why. I decide it’s because she has no brother, only sisters. She thinks that what matters with boys is what you say; she’s never learned the intricacies, the nuances of male silence.
But I know Cordelia isn’t really interested in anything the boys themselves have to say, because she tells me so. Mostly she thinks they’re dim. Her attempts at conversation with them are a performance, an imitation. Her laugh, when she’s with them, is refined and low, like a woman’s laugh on the radio, except when she forgets herself. Then it’s too loud. She’s mimicking something, something in her head, some role or image that only she can see.
The Earle Grey Players come to our high school, as they do every year. They go from high school to high school, they are well known for this. Every year they do one play by Shakespeare; it’s always the play that’s on the province-wide Grade Thirteen Examinations, the ones you have to pass in order to get into university. There aren’t many theaters in Toronto, in fact there are only two, so many people go to these plays. The kids go to them because it’s on the exam and the parents go because they don’t often get a chance to see plays.
The Earle Grey Players are Mr. Earle Grey, who always plays the leads, Mrs. Earle Grey who plays the lead woman, and two or three other actors who are thought to be Earle Grey cousins and who are likely to double up and do two or more parts. The rest of the parts are played by students in whatever high school they’re performing at that week. Last year the play was Julius Caesar, and Cordelia got to be part of the crowd. She had to smear burnt cork on her face for dirt and wrap herself up in a bedsheet from home, and say rabble rabble during the crowd scene when Mark Antony was making his Ears speech.
This year the play is Macbeth. Cordelia is a serving woman, and also a soldier in the final battle scene. This time she has to bring a plaid car-rug from home. She’s lucky because she also has a kilt, an old one of Perdie’s from when she went to her girls’ private school. In addition to her parts, Cordelia is the props assistant. She’s in charge of tidying up the props after each performance, setting them in order, always the same order, so that the actors can grab them backstage and run on without a moment’s thought. During the three days of rehearsal Cordelia is very excited. I can tell by the way she chain-smokes on the way home and acts bored and nonchalant, referring, every once in a while, to the real, professional actors by their first names. The younger ones make such an effort to be funny, she says. They call the Witches The Three Wired Sisters; they call Cordelia a cream-faced loon, and they threaten to put eye of newt and toe of frog into her coffee. They say that when Lady Macbeth says, “Out, damned spot,” during the mad scene, she’s referring to her dog Spot, who has poo’ed on the carpet. She says real actors will never say the name Macbeth out loud, because it’s bad luck. They call it “The Tartans” instead.
“You just said it,” I say.
“Macbeth,” I say.
Cordelia stops snort in the middle of the sidewalk. “Oh God,” she says. “I did, didn’t I?” She pretends to laugh it off, but it bothers her.
At the end of the play Macbeth’s head gets cut off and Macduff has to bring it onto the stage. The head is a cabbage wrapped up in a white tea towel; Macduff throws it onto the stage, where it hits with an impressive, flesh-and-bone thud. Or this is what has happened in rehearsal. But the night before the first performance—there are to be three—Cordelia notices that the cabbage is going bad, it’s getting soft and squooshy and smells like sauerkraut. She replaces it with a brand-new cabbage. The play is put on in the school auditorium, where the school assemblies are, and the choir practice. Opening night is packed. Things go without much mishap, apart from the sniggers in the wrong places and the anonymous voice that says, “Go on, do it!” when Macbeth is hesitating outside Duncan‘s chamber, and the catcalls and whistles from the back of the auditorium when Lady Macbeth appears in her nightgown. I watch for Cordelia in the battle scene, and there she is, running across backstage in her kilt with a wooden sword, her car rug thrown over her shoulder. But when Macduff comes in at the end and tosses down the cabbage in the tea towel, it doesn’t hit once and lie still. It bounces, bumpity-bump, right across the stage like a rubber ball, and falls off the edge. This dampens the tragic effect, and the curtain comes down on laughter.
It’s Cordelia’s fault, for replacing the cabbage. She is mortified. “It was supposed to be rotten,” she wails backstage, where I have gone to congratulate her. “So now they tell me!” The actors have made light of it; they tell her it’s a novel effect. But although Cordelia laughs and blushes and tries to pass it off lightly, I can see she is almost in tears.
I ought to feel pity, but I do not. Instead, on the way home from school the next day, I say “Bumpity bumpity bump, plop,” and Cordelia says, “Oh, don’t.” Her voice is toneless, leaden. This is not a joke. I wonder, for an instant, how I can be so mean to my best friend. For this is what she is. Time passes and we are older, we are the oldest, we are in Grade Thirteen. We can look down on the incoming students, those who are still mere children as we were once. We can smile at them. We’re old enough to take Biology, which is taught in the Chemistry lab. For this we leave our homeroom group and meet with students from other homerooms. This is why Cordelia is my Biology lab partner, at the Chemistry lab table, which is black and has a sink. Cordelia doesn’t like Biology any more than she liked Physics, which she barely squeaked through, but she has to take something in the sciences and it’s easier, to her mind, than a number of the things she might have to take otherwise. We are given dissecting kits with scalpel-like knives that could be sharper, and trays with a coating of wax at the bottom, and a package of pins, as in sewing classes. First we have to dissect a worm. Each of us is given one of these. We look at the diagram of the inside of the worm, in the Zoology textbook: this is what we’re supposed to see once we get the worm open. The worms wriggle and twine in the wax-bottomed trays, and snout their way along the sides, trying to get out. They smell like holes in the ground.
I pin my worm at either end and make a slick vertical cut; the worm twists as they do on fishhooks. I pin the worm’s skin out to the sides. I can see its worm heart, which isn’t the shape of a heart, its central artery pumping worm blood, its digestive system, which is full or mud. “Oh,” says Cordelia. “How can you.” Cordelia is becoming mushier and mushier, I think. She is becoming a drip. I do her worm for her, when the teacher isn’t looking. Then I draw a diagram of the worm, cut open, beautifully labeled. After that comes the frog. The frog kicks and is more difficult than the worm, it looks a little too much like a person swimming. I conk the frog out with chloroform as directed and dissect it with flair, sticking in the pins. I make a drawing of the inside of the frog, with all its curlicues and bulbs, its tiny lungs, its cold-blooded amphibian heart.
Cordelia can’t do the frog either. She says she feels sick to her stomach just thinking about putting her dissecting knife through its skin. She looks at me, pale, her eyes big. The frog smell is getting to her. I do her frog for her. I’m good at this.
I memorize the statocysts of the crayfish, its gills and mouth parts. I memorize the circulatory system of the cat. The teacher, who is usually the boys’ football coach but who has recently taken a summer course in Zoology so he can teach us this, orders a dead cat for us, with its veins and arteries pumped full of blue and pink latex. He’s disappointed when it arrives, because the cat is definitely rancid, you can smell it even through the formaldehyde. So we don’t have to dissect it, we can just use the diagram in the book. But worms, frogs, and cats aren’t enough for me. I want more. I go down to the Zoology Building on Saturday afternoons to use the microscopes in the empty labs. I look at slides, planaria worms in section with their triangular heads and cross-eyes, bacteria colored with vivid dyes, hot pinks, violent purples, radiant blues. These are lit up from beneath, they’re breathtaking, like stained-glass windows. I draw them, delineating the structures with different colored pencils; though I can never get the same luminous brilliance.
Mr. Banerji, who is now Dr. Banerji, discovers what I’m doing. He brings me slides he thinks I would like to see and offers them to me shyly and eagerly, with a conspiratorial giggle, as if we are sharing a delicious, esoteric secret, or something religious. “Parasite of the tent caterpillar,” he says, depositing the slide with reverence on a clean piece of paper at my table. “Egg of the budworm.”
“Thank you,” I say, and he looks at my drawings, picking them up by the corners with his deft, bitten fingers. “Very good, very good, miss,” he says. “Soon you will take over my job.”
He has a wife now, who has come from India, and a little boy. I see them sometimes, looking in through the doorway of the lab, the child gentle and dubious, the wife anxious. She wears gold earrings and a scarf with spangles on it. Her red sari shows beneath her brown Canadian winter coat, her overshoes poking out beneath it.
Cordelia comes to my house and I help her with her Zoology homework, and she stays to dinner. My father, dishing out the beef stew, says that a species a day is becoming extinct. He says we are poisoning the rivers and ruining the gene pools of the planet. He says that when a species becomes extinct, some other species moves in to fill up the ecological niche, because Nature abhors a vacuum. He says that the things that move in are common weeds, and cockroaches and rats: soon all flowers will be dandelions. He says, waving his fork, that if we continue to overbreed as a species, a new epidemic will arise to redress the balance. All this will happen because people have neglected the basic lessons of Science, they have gone in for politics and religion and wars instead, and sought out passionate excuses for killing one another. Science on the other hand is dispassionate and without bias, it is the only universal language. The language is numbers. When at last we are up to our ears in death and garbage, we will look to Science to clean up our mess.
Cordelia listens to all of this, smirking a little. She thinks my father is quaint. I hear him the way she must: this is not what people are supposed to talk about at the dinner table. I go to dinner at Cordelia’s house. Dinners at Cordelia’s house are of two kinds: those when her father is there and those when he isn’t. When he isn’t there, things are slapdash. Mummie comes to the table absent-mindedly still in her painting smock, Perdie and Mirrie and also Cordelia appear in blue jeans with a man’s shirt over top and their hair in pin curls. They jump up from the table, saunter into the kitchen for more butter, or the salt, which has been forgotten. They talk all at once, in a languid, amused way, and groan when it’s their turn to clear the table, while Mummie says “Now girls,” but without conviction. She is losing the energy for disappointment.
But when Cordelia’s father is there, everything is different. There are flowers on the table, and candles. Mummie has on her pearls, the napkins are neatly rolled in the napkin rings instead of crumpled in under the edges of the plates. Nothing is forgotten. There are no pin curls, no elbows on the table, even the spines are straighten.
Today is one of the candle days. Cordelia’s father sits at the head of the table, with his craggy eyebrows, his wolvish look, and bends upon me the full force of his ponderous, ironic, terrifying charm. He can make you feel that what he thinks of you matters, because it will be accurate, but that what you think of him is of no importance.
“I’m hag-ridden,” he says, pretending to be mournful. “The only man in a houseful of women. They won’t let me into the bathroom in the morning to shave.” Mockingly, he invites my sympathy and collusion. But I can think of nothing to say.
Perdie says, “He should consider himself lucky that we put up with him.” She can get away with a little impertinence, with coltish liberties. She has the haircut for it. Mirrie, when hard-pressed, looks reproachful. Cordelia is not good at either of these things. But they all play up to him.
“What are you studying these days?” he says to me. It’s a usual question of his. Whatever I say amuses him.
“The atom,” I say.
“Ah, the atom,” he says. “I remember the atom. And what does the atom have to say for itself these days?”
“Which one?” I say, and he laughs.
“Which one, indeed,” he says. “That’s very good.” This may be what he wants: a give and take, of sorts. But Cordelia can never come up with it, because she’s too frightened of him. She’s frightened of not pleasing him. And yet he is not pleased. I’ve seen it many times, her dithering, fumble-footed efforts to appease him. But nothing she can do or say will ever be enough, because she is somehow the wrong person.
I watch this, and it makes me angry. It makes me want to kick her. How can she be so abject? When will she learn?
Cordelia fails the mid-year Zoology test. She doesn’t seem to care. She has spent half the exam time drawing surreptitious cartoons of various teachers in the school, which she shows to me on the way home, laughing her exaggerated laugh.
Sometimes I dream about boys. These are wordless dreams, dreams of the body. They stay with me for minutes after I wake up and I luxuriate in them, but I forget them soon. I have other dreams as well.
I dream that I can’t move. I can’t talk, I can’t even breathe. I’m in an iron lung. The iron is clenched around my body like a hard cylindrical skin. It’s this iron skin that is doing my breathing for me, in and out. I’m dense and heavy, I feel nothing other than this heaviness. My head sticks out the end of the iron lung. I’m looking up at the ceiling, on which there is a light fixture like yellowish cloudy ice. I dream that I’m trying on a fur collar, in front of the mirror on my bureau. There’s someone standing behind me. If I move so that I can see into the mirror, I’ll be able to look over my own shoulder without turning around. I’ll be able to see who it is.
I dream that I’ve found a red plastic purse, hidden in a drawer or trunk. I know there is treasure inside it, but I can’t get it open. I try and try and finally it bursts, like a balloon. It’s full of dead frogs. I dream that I’ve been given a head wrapped up in a white tea towel. I can see the outlines of the nose, the chin, the lips through the white cloth. I could unwrap the cloth to see whose head it is, but I don’t want to, because I know that if I do the head will come alive.
C ordelia tells me that when she was younger she broke a thermometer and ate some of the mercury in it to make herself sick so she wouldn’t have to go to school. Or she’d stick her finger down her throat and throw up, or she’d hold the thermometer near a light bulb to make it look as if she had a temperature. Her mother caught her doing that because she left it near the light bulb too long and the mercury shot up to a hundred and ten. After that her other deceptions were harder to pull off.
“How old were you then?” I ask her.
“Oh, I don’t know. Before high school,” she tells me. “You know, the age when you do those things.”
It’s Tuesday, in the middle of May. We’re sitting in a booth at Sunnysides. Sunnysides has a soda fountain counter, which is speckled bloodstone red with chrome trim and has a row of round swivel-seat stools screwed to the floor along beside it. The black tops of the seats, which may not be leather, make a gentle farting sound when you sit down on them, so Cordelia and I and all girls prefer the booths. They’re dark wood, and the tabletop between the two facing benches is red like the soda fountain counter. This is where the Burnham students go after school to smoke and to drink glasses of Coca-Cola with maraschino cherries in them. If you drink a Coke and mix two aspirins in with it, it’s supposed to make you drunk. Cordelia says she has tried this; she says it’s nothing like being really drunk. Instead of Cokes, we’re drinking vanilla milkshakes, with two straws each. We ease the paper covers off the straws so that they pleat up into short caterpillars of paper. Then we drop water onto them out of our water glasses, and the paper caterpillars expand and look as if they’re crawling. The tables at Sunnysides are littered with strips of soggy paper.
“What did the chickens say when the hen laid an orange?” Cordelia says, because there is a wave of corny chicken jokes sweeping the school. Chicken jokes, and moron jokes. Why did the moron throw the clock out the window? To see time fly.
“Look at the orange marmalade,” I say in a bored voice. “What did the moron say when he saw the three holes in the ground?”
“What?” says Cordelia, who has trouble remembering jokes even when she’s heard them.
“Well, well, well,” I say.
“Ha ha,” says Cordelia. Part of this ritual is mild derision, of other people’s jokes. Cordelia doodles on the table, using our spilled water. “Remember those holes I used to dig?” she says.
“What holes?” I say. I don’t remember any holes.
“Those holes in my backyard. Boy, did I want a hole out there. I started one, but the ground was too hard, it was full of rocks. So I dug another one. I used to work away at it after school, day after day. I got blisters on my hands from the shovel.” She smiles a pensive, reminiscent smile.
“What did you want it for?” I ask.
“I wanted to put a chair in it and sit down there. By myself.”
I laugh. “What for?”
“I don’t know. I guess I wanted someplace that was all mine, where nobody could bug me. When I was little, I used to sit on a chair in the front hall. I used to think that if I kept very still and out of the way and didn’t say anything, I would be safe.”
“Safe from what?” I say.
“Just safe,” she says. “When I was really little, I guess I used to get into trouble a lot, with Daddy. When he would lose his temper. You never knew when he was going to do it. ”Wipe that smirk off your face,“
he would say. I used to stand up to him.” She squashes out her cigarette, which has been smoldering in the ashtray. “You know, I hated moving to that house. I hated the kids at Queen Mary’s, and those boring things like skipping. I didn’t really have any good friends there, except for you.”
Cordelia’s face dissolves, re-forms: I can see her nine-year-old face taking shape beneath it. This happens in an eyeblink. It’s as if I’ve been standing outside in the dark and a shade has snapped up, over a lighted window, revealing the life that’s been going on inside in all its clarity and detail. There is that glimpse, during which I can see. And then not.
A wave of blood goes up to my head, my stomach shrinks together, as if something dangerous has just missed hitting me. It’s as if I’ve been caught stealing, or telling a lie; or as if I’ve heard other people talking about me, saying bad things about me, behind my back. There’s the same flush of shame, of guilt and terror, and of cold disgust with myself. But I don’t know where these feelings have come from, what I’ve done.
I don’t want to know. Whatever it is, it’s nothing I need or want. I want to be here, in Tuesday, in May, sitting in the red-topped booth at Sunnysides, watching Cordelia as she delicately slurps the last of her milkshake up through the straws. She’s noticed nothing.
“I’ve got one,” I say. “Why did the unwashed chicken cross the road twice?”
“Why?” says Cordelia.
“Because it was a dirty double-crosser,” I say.
Cordelia rolls her eyes, like Perdie. “Very funny,” she says.
I close my eyes. In my head there’s a square of darkness, and of purple flowers.
I begin to avoid Cordelia. I don’t know why.
I no longer arrange double dates with her. I tell her that the boy I’m going out with doesn’t have any suitable friends. I say I have to stay after school, which is true: I’m painting the decorations for the next dance, palm trees and girls in hula skirts.
Some days Cordelia waits for me, so I have to walk home with her anyway. She talks and talks as if there’s nothing wrong, and I say little; but then I’ve never said a lot anyway. After a while she’ll say, overly brightly, “But here I’ve been going on and on about me. What’s doing with you?” and I smile and say “Nothing much.” Sometimes she makes a joke of it and says, “But that’s enough about me. What do you think of me?” and I add to the joke by saying, “Nothing much.”
Cordelia is failing more and more tests. It doesn’t seem to bother her, or at any rate she doesn’t want to talk about it. I no longer help her with her homework, because I know she won’t pay attention even if I do. She has trouble concentrating on anything. Even when she’s just talking, on the way home, she changes the subject in the middle of a sentence so it’s hard to follow what she’s saying. She’s slipping up on the grooming, too, reverting to her old sloppy ways of years ago. She’s let her bleached strip grow out, so it’s disconcertingly two-toned. There are runs in her nylons, buttons popped off her blouses. Her lipstick doesn’t seem to fit her mouth.
It is decided that it would be best for Cordelia to change schools again, so she does. After this she phones me frequently, but then less frequently. She says we should get together soon. I never deny this, but I never set a time either. After a while I say, “I have to go now.”
Cordelia’s family moves to a different, larger house, in a ritzier neighborhood farther north. Some Dutch people move into her old house. They plant a lot of tulips. That seems to be the end of her. I write the final Grade Thirteen exams, subject after subject, day after day, sitting at a desk in the gymnasium. The leaves are fully out, the irises are in bloom, there’s a heat wave; the gymnasium heats up like an oven and we all sit in there, superheated, writing away, while the gymnasium exudes its smell of bygone athletes. The teachers police the aisles. Several girls faint. One boy keels over and is found afterward to have drunk a pitcher of tomato juice out of the refrigerator which was really Bloody Marys for his mother’s bridge club. As the bodies are carried out I scarcely look up from the page. I know I’ll do well in the two Biology exams. I can draw anything: the insides of crayfish ears, the human eye, frogs’ genitalia, the blossom of the snapdragon ( Antirrhinum majus) in cross section. I know the difference between a raceme and a rhizome, I explicate photosynthesis, I can spell Scrofulariaciae. But in the middle of the Botany examination it comes to me, like a sudden epileptic fit, that I’m not going to be a biologist, as I have thought. I am going to be a painter. I look at the page, where the life cycle of the mushroom from spore to fruiting body is taking shape, and I know this with absolute certainty. My life has been changed, soundlessly, instantaneously. I continue my explication of tubers, bulbs, and legumes, as if nothing has happened.
One night, just after the exams have finished, the phone rings. It’s Cordelia. I realize I’ve been expecting this.
“I’d like to see you,” she says. I don’t want to see her, but I know I will. What I hear is not like but need.
The next afternoon I take the subway and then the bus, northward through the heated city, to where Cordelia now lives. I’ve never been up here before. The streets wind in and around, the houses are large, ponderous, Georgian, set off with weighty shrubbery. I see or think I see Cordelia’s face, pale and indistinct, behind the front window as I come up the walk. She opens the door before I have time to ring.
“Well, hi there,” she says. “Long time no see.” This is false heartiness and we both know it, because Cordelia is a wreck. Her hair is lusterless, the flesh of her face pasty. She’s gained a lot of weight, not solid-muscled weight, but limp weight, bloated and watery. She’s gone back to the too-vivid orange-red lipstick, which turns her yellowish. “I know,” she says. “I look like Haggis McBaggis.”
The house is cool inside. The front hall floor is white and black squares; there’s a graceful central staircase. A flower arrangement with gladioli sits on a polished table beside it. The house is silent, except for a clock chiming in the living room. Nobody else seems to be home. We don’t go into the living room but back past the stairs and through a door into the kitchen, where Cordelia makes me a cup of instant coffee. The kitchen is beautiful, perfectly arranged, pale-colored and peaceful. The refrigerator and stove are white. Some people now have colored refrigerators, pale-green or pink, but I don’t like these colors and I’m pleased that Cordelia’s mother doesn’t either. There’s a lined school notebook open on the kitchen table, which I recognize as the dining table from their other house with the two middle leaves taken out. That means they must have a new dining table. It appals me to discover that I want to see this new dining table more than I want to see Cordelia. Cordelia rummages in the fridge and brings out an opened package of store doughnuts. “I’ve been waiting for an excuse to eat the rest of these,” she says. But as soon as she’s taken her first bite she lights a cigarette.
“So,” she says. “What are you up to these days?” It’s her too-bright voice, the one she used to use on boys. Right now it frightens me.
“Oh, just the usual,” I say. “You know. Finishing exams.” We look at each other. Things are bad for her, that much is clear. I don’t know whether she wants me to ignore this or not. “What about you?” I say.
“I have a tutor,” she says. “I’m supposed to be studying. For summer courses.” We both know without mentioning it that she must have failed her year, despite the new school. She must have failed badly. Unless she passes whatever subjects she failed, at the next set of exams or sometime or other, she’ll be locked out of university forever.
“Is the tutor nice?” I say, as if I’m asking about a new dress.
“I guess so,” says Cordelia. “Her name is Miss Dingle. It really is. She blinks all the time, she has watery eyes. She lives in this squalid apartment. She has salmon-colored lingerie, I see it hanging over the shower curtain rod in her squalid bathroom. I can always get her off the subject by asking about her health.”
“Off what subject?” I ask.
“Oh, any subject,” says Cordelia. “Physics, Latin. Any of it.” She sounds a little ashamed of herself, but proud and excited too. It’s like the time when she used to pinch things. This is her accomplishment these days: deluding the tutor. “I don’t know why they all think I spend the days studying,” she says. “I sleep a lot. Or else I drink coffee and smoke and listen to records. Sometimes I have a little nip out of Daddy’s whisky decanter. I fill it up with water. He hasn’t found out!”
“But, Cordelia,” I say. “You have to do something!”
“Why?” she says, with a little of her old belligerence. She isn’t only joking. And I have no reason to give her. I can’t say, “Because everyone does.” I can’t even say, “You have to earn a living,” because she obviously doesn’t, she’s here in this large house and she isn’t earning a living at all. She could just go on like this, like a woman from old-fashioned times, a maiden aunt, some aging perennial girl who never leaves home. It isn’t likely that her parents would kick her out. So I say, “You’ll get bored.”
Cordelia laughs, too loudly. “So what if I study?” she says. “I pass my exams. I go to university. I learn it all. I turn into Miss Dingle. No thanks.”
“Don’t be a cretin,” I say. “Who says you have to be Miss Dingle?”
“Maybe I am a cretin,” she says. “I can’t concentrate on that stuff, I can hardly look at the page, it all turns into little black dots.”
“Maybe you could go to secretarial school,” I say. I feel like a traitor as soon as I’ve said it. She knows what we both think of girls who would go to secretarial school, with their spidery plucked eyebrows and pink nylon blouses.
“Thanks a bundle.” There’s a pause. “But let’s not talk about all that,” she says, returning to her ultrabright voice. “Let’s talk about fun things. Remember that cabbage? The bouncy one?”
“Yes,” I say. It occurs to me that she could be pregnant, or that she might have been. It’s natural to wonder that about girls who drop out of school. But I decide this is unlikely.
“I was so mortified,” she says. “Remember when we used to go downtown and take our pictures at Union Station? We thought we were so sharp!”
“Right before the subway was built,” I say.
“We used to throw snowballs at old ladies. We used to sing those silly songs.”
“Leprosy,” I say.
“Part of your heart,” she says. “We thought we were the cat’s ass. I see kids that age now and I think: Brats! ”
She’s looking back on that time as if it was her golden age; or maybe it seems that way to her because it’s better than now. But I don’t want her to remember any more. I want to protect myself from any further, darker memories of hers, get myself out of here gracefully before something embarrassing happens. She’s balanced on the edge of an artificial hilarity that could topple over at any moment into its opposite, into tears and desperation. I don’t want to see her crumple up like that, because I have nothing to offer her in the way of solace.
I harden toward her. She’s acting like a jerk. She doesn’t have to stay locked into place, into this mournful, drawn-out, low-grade misery. She has all kinds of choices and possibilities, and the only thing that’s keeping her away from them is lack of willpower. Smarten up, I want to tell her. Pull up your socks.
I say I have to get back, that I’m going out later. This isn’t true and she suspects it. Although she’s a mess, her instinct for social fraud has sharpened. “Of course,” she says. “That’s entirely understandable.”
It’s her distant, grown-up voice.
Now that I’m hurrying, making a show of bustle, it strikes me that one of my reasons for escape is that I don’t want to meet her mother coming back, from wherever she’s been. Her mother would look at me with reproach, as if I am responsible for Cordelia in her present shape, as if she’s disappointed, not in Cordelia, but in me. Why should I have to undergo such a look, for something that is not my fault?
“Goodbye, Cordelia,” I say in the front hall. I squeeze her arm briefly, move back before she can kiss me on the cheek. Kissing on the cheek is what they do in her family. I know she has expected something from me, some connection to her old life, or to herself. I know I have failed to provide it. I am dismayed by myself, by my cruelty and indifference, my lack of kindness. But also I feel relief.
“Call you soon,” I say. I’m lying, but she chooses not to acknowledge this.
“That would be nice,” she says, shielding us both with politeness.
I go down the walk toward the street, turn to look back. There’s her face again, a blurred reflection of a moon, behind the front window.
Ten – Life Drawing
T here are several diseases of the memory. Forgetfulness of nouns, for instance, or of numbers. Or there are more complex amnesias. With one, you can lose your entire past; you start afresh, learning how to tie your shoelaces, how to eat with a fork, how to read and sing. You are introduced to your relatives, your oldest friends, as if you’ve never met them before; you get a second chance with them, better than forgiveness because you can begin innocent. With another form, you keep the distant past but lose the present. You can’t remember what happened five minutes ago. When someone you’ve known all your life goes out of the room and then comes back in, you greet them as if they’ve been gone for twenty years; you weep and weep, with joy and relief, as if at a reunion with the dead. I sometimes wonder which of these will afflict me, later; because I know one of them will. For years I wanted to be older, and now I am.
I sit in the harsh ultrablack of the Quasi, drinking red wine, staring out the window. On the other side of the glass, Cordelia drifts past; then melts and reassembles, changing into someone else. Another mistaken identity.
Why did they name her that? Hang that weight around her neck. Heart of the moon, jewel of the sea, depending on which foreign language you’re using. The third sister, the only honest one. The stubborn one, the rejected one, the one who was not heard. If she’d been called Jane, would things have been different?
My own mother named me after her best friend, as women did in those days. Elaine, which I once found too plaintive. I wanted something more definite, a monosyllable: Dot or Pat, like a foot set down. Nothing you could make a mistake about; nothing watery. But my name has solidified around me, with time. I think of it as tough but pliable now, like a well-worn glove.
There’s a lot of neo-black in here, some of it leather, some shiny vinyl. I’ve come prepared this time, I have my black cotton turtleneck and my black trenchcoat with the button-on hood, but I’m not the right texture. Also not the right age: everyone in here is twelve. This place was Jon’s suggestion. Trust him to cling to the surfboard as it upends in the froth of the latest wave.
He always made a fetish of lateness, to indicate that his life was crammed with many things, all of them more important than I was, and today is no exception. Thirty minutes later than agreed he breezes in. This time however he apologizes. Has he learned something, or does his new wife run a tighter ship? Funny I still think of her as new.
“That’s all right, I programmed for it,” I say. “I’m glad you could come out to play.” A small preliminary kick at the wife.
“Having lunch with you hardly qualifies as play,” he says, grinning.
He’s still up to it. We look each other over. In four years he’s achieved more wrinkles, and the sideburns and mustache are graying further. “Don’t mention the bald spot,” he says.
“What bald spot?” I say, meaning I’ll overlook his physical degeneration if he’ll overlook mine. He’s up to that one, too.
“You’re looking better than ever,” he says. “Selling out must agree with you.”
“Oh, it does,” I say. “It’s so much better than licking bums and hacking up women’s bodies in screw-and-spew movies.” Once this would have drawn blood, but he must have accepted his lot in life by now. He shrugs, making the best of it; but he looks tired.
“Live long enough and the licker becomes the lickee,” he says. “Ever since the exploding eyeball I can do no wrong. Right now I’m head-to-toe saliva.”
The possibility for crude sexual innuendo is there, but I duck it. Instead I think, he’s right: we are the establishment now, such as it is. Or that’s what we must look like. Once the people I knew died of suicide and motorcycle crashes and other forms of violence. Now it’s diseases: heart attacks, cancer, the betrayals of the body. The world is being run by people my age, men my age, with falling-out hair and health worries, and it frightens me. When the leaders were older than me I could believe in their wisdom, I could believe they had transcended rage and malice and the need to be loved. Now I know better. I look at the faces in newspapers, in magazines, and wonder: what greeds, what furies-drive them on?
“How’s your real work going?” I say, relenting, letting him know I still take him seriously. This bothers him. “All right,” he says. “I haven’t been able to get to it much lately.”
We are silent, considering shortfalls. There’s not much time left, for us to become what we once intended. Jon had potential, but it’s not a word that can be used comfortably any more. Potential has a shelf life.
We talk about Sarah, easily and without competing, as if we are her aunt and uncle. We talk about my show.
“I guess you saw that hatchet job in the paper,” I say.
“Was that a hatchet job?” he says.
“It’s my fault. I was rude to the interviewer,” I say, with what I try to pass off as penitence. “I’m well on my way to becoming a cantankerous old witch.”
“I’d be disappointed in you if you weren’t,” he says. “Make ‘em sweat, it’s what they’re paid for.” We both laugh. He knows me. He knows what a shit I can be.
I look at him with the nostalgic affection men are said to feel for their wars, their fellow veterans. I think, I once threw things at this man. I threw a glass ashtray, a fairly cheap one which didn’t break. I threw a shoe (his) and a handbag (mine), not even snapping the handbag shut first, so that he was showered with a metal rain of keys and small change. The worst thing I threw was a small portable television set, standing on the bed and heaving it at him with the aid of the bouncy springs, although the instant I let fly I thought, Oh God, let him duck! I once thought I was capable of murdering him. Today I feel only a mild regret that we were not more civilized with each other at the time. Still, it was amazing, all those explosions, that recklessness, that Technicolor wreckage. Amazing and agonizing and almost lethal. Now that I’m more or less safe from him, and him from me, I can recall him with fondness and even in some detail, which is more than I can say for several others. Old lovers go the way of old photographs, bleaching out gradually as in a slow bath of acid: first the moles and pimples, then the shadings, then the faces themselves, until nothing remains but the general outlines. What will be left of them when I’m seventy? None of the baroque ecstasy, none of the grotesque compulsion. A word or two, hovering in the inner emptiness. Maybe a toe here, a nostril there, or a mustache, floating like a little curl of seaweed among the other flotsam.
Across from me at the night-black table, Jon, though diminishing, still moves and breathes. There’s a sliver of pain, of longing in me: Don’t go yet! It’s not time! Don’t go! It would be stupid, as always, to reveal my own sentimentality, my weakness to him.
What we eat is vaguely Thai: chicken, spicy and succulent, a salad of exotic foliage, red leaves, tiny splinters of purple. Gaudy food. This is the kind of thing people eat now, people who eat in places like this: Toronto is no longer the land of chicken pot pie, beef stew, overboiled vegetables. I recall my first avocado, when I was twenty-two. It was like my father’s first symphony orchestra. Perversely I long for the desserts of my childhood, the desserts of war, simple and inexpensive and bland: tapioca pudding, with its gelatinous fish eyes, Jell-O caramel pudding, Junket. Junket was made with white tablets that came out of a tube, and served with a dollop of grape jelly on the top. Probably it’s vanished by now. Jon has ordered a bottle, no glass-by-glass for him. It’s a hint of the old bombast, the old peacock tail, and reassuring.
“How’s your wife?” I ask him.
“Oh,” he says, looking down, “Mary Jean and I have decided to try it apart for a while.”
This may explain the herbal tea: some younger, more vegetarian influence, in the studio, on the sly. “I suppose you’ve got some little number,” I say. “They say ”he goes’ instead of “he says,” have you noticed?“
“As a matter of fact,” he says, “Mary Jean was the one who left.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. And immediately I am, I’m indignant, how could she do that to him, the cold unfeeling bitch. I side with him, despite the fact that I did the same thing to him myself, years ago.
“I guess I’m partly to blame,” he says. This is not something he ever would have admitted before. “She said she couldn’t get through to me.”
I bet that isn’t all she said. He’s lost something, some illusion I used to think was necessary to him. He’s come to realize he too is human. Or is this a performance, for my benefit, to show me he’s up-to-date?
Maybe men shouldn’t have been told about their own humanity. It’s only made them uncomfortable. It’s only made them trickier, slier, more evasive, harder to read.
“If you hadn’t been so crazy,” I say, “it could have worked out. With us, I mean.”
That perks him up. “Who was crazy?” he says, grinning again. “Who drove who to the hospital?”
“If it hadn’t been for you,” I say, “I wouldn’t have needed to be driven to the hospital.”
“That’s not fair and you know it,” he says.
“You’re right,” I say. “It’s not fair. I’m glad you drove me to the hospital.”
Forgiving men is so much easier than forgiving women.