Read February Online

Authors: Lisa Moore

Tags: #Grief, #Widows, #Psychological Fiction, #Newfoundland and Labrador, #Pregnancy; Unwanted, #Single mothers, #Family Life, #General, #Literary, #Oil Well Drilling, #Family Relationships, #Fiction, #Domestic fiction, #Oil Well Drilling - Accidents

February (2 page)

BOOK: February
11.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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She was not church-inclined but some part of her must have been hoping for a hint about how to get through what was coming. She was numb and unbelieving, but she had three children and a kind of intuition about the pregnancy though she hadn’t even skipped a period yet. Or if she had, she hadn’t noticed.

Louise says, I was there. We said about the crowd and I gave you a tissue. I had a tissue in my sleeve. But Helen doesn’t remember Louise.

The candles—there must have been hundreds on the altar, each in a little red glass, all slipping sideways in a blur when her eyes filled. She blinked and the candle flames became sharp stars and the stars threw out spears and her eyes filled and the flames became a wall of sluicing light.

This is a big cathedral, the Basilica, with vaulted ceilings and usually a chill, and that night you could not move because of the crowd. And the organ music was loud. People probably heard it on Water Street.

And the voices were just as loud. When people started to sing, the candles held their breath and then blasted brighter. Or the doors at the back blew open and the cold wind went all the way up the aisle and the candles flared.

Who came over to watch the kids? Helen didn’t bring the kids to the church. She regrets that. Johnny was nine and Cathy was eight and Lulu was seven. Bang, bang, bang, one right after the other.

Three youngsters on the floor in diapers, her mother-in-law Meg had said, as if that was a plan. She should have kept the children awake that night, got them into their snowsuits. She wishes she had.

The kids should have been with her at that mass, but she wasn’t thinking that way at the time. She doesn’t know what way she was thinking. She had an idea she could shield them. Ha.

The candlelight moved in time to the organ music. A bank of golden light behind the priests—or whatever they were; ministers, an archbishop for sure—in their white gowns with their arms raised. The singing began and she had to get out.

The wavering high-pitched voices of the old ladies in the front. Those voices are distinct, they don’t blend, they’re on key but reedy, and they just don’t ever blend or harmonize or join in; they lead is what they do, old ladies who come to church every morning, walking up from Gower Street or King’s Road or Flavin Street after putting out some food for the cat and a dishtowel over the tan bowl with bread rising in it. They come in rubber boots with zippers up the front, boots that slide over indoor shoes and used to belong to the husbands, who are dead, and the old ladies have plastic rain hats they tie under their chins and wool coats with big buttons and permed hair and rosary beads in their pockets beside balled-up tissues. Those old women couldn’t believe they had to look at so much sorrow so late in their lives. That kind of thing should have been over for them. They sang and the reedy sound was resignation. It takes seventy or eighty years of practice to master resignation, but the old women know it is a necessary skill.

And there were male voices, deep and full of the texture of trying to think. The men were trying to think of how to get through the hymn and the mass and find the car afterwards and drive back to the church to pick up the wife and youngsters so they wouldn’t have to walk in the weather—I’ll come back to get you, no need for you to get wet, you just wait on the steps there, look out for me—and these men were thinking of the traffic, and whether their sons or brothers were dead. Knowing they were dead—they all knew—but wondering if. Holding the hymn books out at arm’s length, these men, because they were far-sighted, and squinting and nodding as if they agreed with the words they were singing, or were just glad to be able to make them out.

The men holding the hymn books had their brows furrowed and their wives were standing next to them. The cathedral was full of the smell of wet wool and winter, cold stone, incense, and near the altar there was the smell of candle wax and lilies. In some of the pews were whole families, little girls with ringlets or braids and dresses that hung out over their snowpants, red-cheeked, yawning, swaying back and forth. Toddlers asleep on their mothers’ laps.

Here’s why Helen left the church in the middle of the mass: Some of those people were full of hope. Insane with it, and the lore is that hope can bring lost sailors home. That’s the lore. Hope can raise the dead if you have enough of it.

She was glad she hadn’t brought the kids. What kind of people would bring their kids to this, she thought.

Helen knew, absolutely, that Cal was dead and she would be lucky to get his body back.

She wanted his body. She remembers that. She knew he was dead and how badly she wanted his body. Not that she could have put it into words then.

What she might have said then: She was outside. The best way to describe what she felt: She was banished. Banished from everyone, and from herself.

. . . . .

Outside, 1982

BECAUSE OF THE
children Helen felt a great pressure to pretend there was no outside. Or if there was an outside, to pretend she had escaped it. Helen wanted the children to think she was on the inside, with them. The outside was an ugly truth she planned to keep to herself.

It was an elaborate piece of theatre, this lying about the true state of where she was: outside.

She pretended by making breakfast and supper (though she often relied on chicken nuggets and frozen pizza) and she did the children’s homework with them.

John bit the erasers off his pencils, chewed the gold metal until she could see his teeth marks, and there was nothing left but a bit of saliva-coated rubber that fell off the tip of his tongue when she held out her hand. He started chewing things after the rig went down. His teacher said John ate his pencils during class. He ate a pencil a week, the teacher figured. It can’t be good for him, this teacher told Helen. He also chewed the cuffs of his shirts until they were in rags. He came home, and his cuffs were damp with saliva. And he ate his lunch with his mouth open, showing the food.

The teacher said, Kids will make fun of him. Just gently remind him, she said. Chew with your mouth closed. This is basic. One day I went into the cafeteria and he was sitting by himself. Big table.

Helen told this to John, and then he ate with his lips pressed hard and tight, eyes wide and fierce with the magnificent strain of being polite.

Helen did math with John, and she told him: Your fives are backwards.

They made a project about penguins with photographs from
National Geographic
and bristol board and Magic Markers. Penguins keep the one mate for life. They slide off the cliffs of ice on their bellies. Every now and then one will get eaten and the other will be left alone. These were the maudlin, sentimental facts about penguins. Johnny cut out photographs with his round-nosed scissors and glued them onto the bristol board and he made slanting lines with a ruler for the captions. His printing was atrocious.

Helen made the children sit at the table together for the evening meal. Always. Sitting at the table together was the cornerstone of her act.

She didn’t bake. Helen put store-bought pastries in their lunches, and she put in cans of pop. She put in a ham sandwich with mayonnaise and Wonder bread. All the families of the drowned men were waiting for the settlement, because how do you feed four kids and pay Newfoundland Light and Power?

After a while she got a job bartending. Meg babysat and Helen worked when the bar called her in, and she found she couldn’t count change. She’d look at the change in the cash register drawer and the change in her open palm and the five-dollar bill in her other hand and she had no idea what it all meant.

She got the orders wrong. Some people had tabs and she didn’t know which people. Once she refused to serve a man and he offered to blacken both her eyes for her. Then you won’t think you’re so smart, he said. He picked up the phone and called the owner and gave her the receiver and the owner said, You’re there to serve beer. Now serve the goddamn beer.

She cleaned up puke in the bathrooms and she’d leave at four in the morning and walk home. Cars crawling beside her on Duckworth Street. Men asking did she want a lift. Do you want to get in? I got something for you.

Once she screamed in a man’s face and burst into tears and demanded to know: Where is your wife? Where is she? Don’t you have a wife? The mirrored window rolled up with a whir and she saw her blotched face and the snot and tears and the halo of her hair lit from the street light and she didn’t know who it was. Screaming as the car burned rubber. The smell of the tires and her face streaking in the glass.

The money from the bar was enough to keep her family in groceries until a man smashed a beer bottle on the corner of a table and held it to his girlfriend’s face. The bouncer broke the man’s back tossing him out and then Helen quit.

She called to the children from the foot of the stairs, her hand on the banister: Supper is on the table.

Johnny got a paper route and on winter evenings she and the girls followed him, waiting on the street while he banged on doors collecting change. He was ten and the baby, Gabrielle, was in a carrier on Helen’s back. John had the idea that he should support the family. Saucy as a crackie, a corner boy. She’d watch him ring the bell and be asked to step inside.

Johnny chatted up the old men who came to their doors in bathrobes and scuffling slippers. Helen listened to the screech of their screen doors and watched as the old men looked up the street for a parent and saw her and the girls, and then they ushered John in.

Come in, my son.

Or there were the housewives digging through their purses. Ten years old, and Johnny would notice a new haircut or he’d say the supper smelled good.

He worked them for a tip, ten years old. He patted the dogs and stood talking while he handed over the paper.

Helen and the girls walked all over the neighbourhood while Johnny collected for the
Telegram
. When she got home she’d sit on a chair and Johnny would hold the backpack while she undid the straps, and when she had worked her shoulders out it felt like she was floating. She would put Gabrielle in the crib without taking off her snowsuit. Even the sound of the zipper could wake the baby.

She thinks of the smell of the
Telegram
bag John carried over his shoulder, the smell of frost and ink. The change spilling out of his wallet onto the kitchen table. Slamming his hand down on the rolling quarters before they got away. He wanted to buy groceries, so she let him. He bought tubs of ice cream and cookies. He’d give the girls a spoon each and they’d all eat from the tub there on the kitchen table. Once John bought her a steak. He was very proud of himself.

What a maniac Helen was if the children didn’t come immediately for supper—I am putting supper on the table down here and I expect you to come when I Jesus call and I expect you to come immediately.

The girls flung themselves into their chairs. Laughing, talking over each other, reaching for the ketchup. Gabrielle learned to go up the stairs, her pudgy diaper wagging in the faded yellow sleeper.
Watch she doesn’t fall. Are you watching that baby
?

Johnny would get up when Gabrielle woke in the middle of the night and bring her a bottle of milk. He was afraid of the dark but he made his way down the stairs into the kitchen, and Helen would hear the fridge and she would hear him coming back up the stairs as fast as he could. He would give Gabrielle her bottle and climb into bed with Helen, his cold feet on her shins. He always had a pain in his tummy. Rub my tummy, he’d say. It was stress. A little kid with stress. Nobody said
stress
back then. Growing pains, they said.

Elbows, Helen said at supper. Not on your sleeve. Use your napkin. Do you want to crack the legs off that chair? How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t lean back. Don’t bounce the ball off the walls.

She would not have the
TV
on during supper. She had an idea of what a family was and she would make them be one. Turn off that
TV
, she said. If she had a quarter for every time she said, Close the door; we’re not heating the street.

John forgetting to use his fork. Use your fork. Use your goddamn. I’ll cut it for you. Do you want Mommy to cut it? John hated to sit in his chair at the table. Can I be excused? No, you can’t. I’m finished. You’re not finished until everybody is finished; this is a family. Gabrielle is finished. Lulu is finished. Can I go now? Go then. Go. Go on if you want to. Go on out of it. Go for the love of God. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

And John tore around the corner and down the hall and out the door. Shut the door. Shut the goddamn.

Or John would wolf his food and then bounce a basketball. That ball is marking the paint. What did I say about the ball? I said don’t bounce the ball off the. Look at the wall! Look at the mark on the. What did I say?

Standing by the table, dribbling the ball. She would not have any sauce, Helen told her children.

Don’t back-answer me, young lady, if you know what’s good for you, she said.

I’ll tan your arse, she said.

John was this kind of kid: You’d have to say
Stop bouncing that ball
. The loud spank of it had an echo and the light over the dining room table would vibrate from the noise. This was a light with a fake electric candle and four plates of smoked glass around it and a bronze-looking chain that wrapped around the cord. It hung from the ceiling, and when John bounced the basketball, small rectangles of light jiggled on the tablecloth. This is a boy, ten, eleven years old.

Bunny ears, his sister Lulu told him. You make one loop, then you make the other loop and you fold this loop under that loop and you just pull tight. But John could not tie his shoes.

The girls drew on the sidewalk with coloured chalk—flowers and hopscotch. Cathy knotted elastic bands together in one long rope and put one end around the telephone pole and the other around Lulu’s knees and she would jump onto the elastic and hold it down under her shoe. Or the girls played with a Footsie. One October the family had to listen to the screech of Lulu’s violin for a half-hour every day after supper. Lulu had formidable discipline, her chin crimped up against the little plastic cup, the raw squawks so shrill they buzzed in Helen’s teeth.

BOOK: February
11.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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