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 (21 page)

BOOK: February
7.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

When customers came into the bar there was a blast of cold and snow because it was snowing hard, and the traffic would be a problem in this kind of weather. Helen sat where she could see the door and she counted seven men who might have been Heathcliff.

The man she was waiting for had called himself Heathcliff and he was an insurance salesman, but somebody somewhere had told him that women like literary types. They like to think you’re sensitive, he’d written to Helen.

He had confessed all this to Helen and he was liberal with the emoticons. They had written to each other every day for three months, Helen and Heathcliff.

Nineteen people entered the bar while Helen waited and seven of the nineteen might have been him. There were seven possible Heathcliffs, and they came in and got themselves a drink and left, and none of them looked at her. They sat by themselves without removing their coats and the bartender put drinks down in front of them and they drank hunched over the glass as if they expected someone to grab it.

Or they took off their coats and were joined by someone from the office and they drank one fast beer because the wife was waiting. The wife had supper on. They accepted a glass with their beer but they didn’t drink from the glass; they drank directly from the bottle and they put the bottle down with finality and shrugged themselves back into their coats.

One man in a herringbone coat with a wine-coloured cashmere scarf and black gloves leaned into the bar beside Helen, and of course she thought it was him.

Some weather, he said.

Is it getting nasty, she asked. The bartender put down a shot glass in front of the man and he peeled off a bill from a wad of bills and he said to the bartender: I want you to make me a solemn promise. You won’t give me another one of these supposing I twist your arm.

The girl rolled her eyes and Helen saw they were flirting, though the man was thirty years older. The girl was happy to flirt. She couldn’t have been more than twenty and Helen felt ridiculously warmed by the flirting. It was as if they were including her, and the girl was rolling her eyes for Helen’s benefit, and wasn’t it funny—the ugly weather and the older man draining the shot glass in one gulp and touching the glass back down deliberately. His cellphone rang and he took it out of his pocket and looked at the number and turned it off and put it back in his pocket.

That’s the wife, he said. He gave a little shudder and the girl behind the counter smirked. He was the kind of man who wanted the bartender to know what his usual was. It wasn’t Heathcliff because Heathcliff didn’t have a wife.

The man exhaled deeply and Helen smelled the Scotch and a mint, and underneath those smells something bad. It was just a whiff of mint and Scotch and a bitter smell, the smell of a long afternoon trapped in an office, trapped in some unsavoury pursuit.

Now, the man said. Give me another one, my love. The girl made a little show of crossing her arms, closing her eyes and tilting her chin up, a show of primness. She was pretending to be unmovable.

Don’t make me come over this counter after you, the man said.

The girl sighed a deep stage sigh and poured the drink.

Because I don’t mind one bit coming after you, the man said. He was smiling. He was not Heathcliff.

And it occurred to Helen then that Heathcliff had come and gone. She was slow to accept it. She was stunned.

Heathcliff had come and looked at her and didn’t find her attractive. It was so far outside the scope of what she knew to be decent human behaviour that she could not fathom it, though some part of her also knew it exactly. She went to the bathroom and got down on her knees in front of the filthy toilet and puked. The floor of the bathroom had slush all over it and the knees of her nylons were soaked; a single tiny stone dug sharply into her knee. What she was vomiting was the belief that getting old didn’t matter. Because it did matter. It mattered a lot and there was no stopping it, and everything inside her heaved out that idea.

Helen had read an entire email about the pain of having a plantar wart removed from the sole of Heathcliff’s foot. She had commiserated. He had been afraid and she had written right away to find out how the laser treatment had gone.

They had been erotic online. She had confessed certain fantasies. He had said what he liked. She had been flowery and subtle; he was blunt and clichéd.

The bar door slammed with the wind. The wind took the door and it crashed closed.

Heathcliff never wrote her again, and Helen never wrote him. But the grotesque banality and the acute intimacy of the plantar wart email haunted her for months afterwards.

. . . . .

Back in the Workforce, 1990s

Cal died and the children were older, a job in an office, and Helen had to learn about computers. All the other employees were twenty years younger. The bloody audit, the bloody audit. For ten years she had a boss who called to her through the corridors, Here comes the old bat. Trevor Baxter was American and he was trying to be funny.

Helen hated computers. All she did was work and sleep. She fell asleep in her car, waiting for it to warm up. She fell asleep in a bank lineup, her wallet spilling out of her hand. She was depressed, the doctor said. She was menopausal. He prescribed transcendental meditation. He prescribed confession and the Holy Eucharist. What about a trip, he said.

Trevor Baxter said, Here comes the old bat, five minutes late, I see. Standing in the door of his office, looking at his watch.

The old bat is late again, he’d boom.

Helen would not complain because she knew Trevor Baxter’s wife was leaving him and his heart was a canker. He could not boil an egg, he had once told her, weeping at his desk. He could not match his socks when they came out of the dryer. He banged around his empty house by himself; he did not sleep. He hadn’t slept in months.

The children are on her side, he told Helen. The children barely spoke to him. His sister-in-law had attacked him in the supermarket, shrill and castigating.

So tight you squeak, the sister-in-law had hissed.

Trevor Baxter had grown up in poverty. He would not have it. All the spending. He knew the value of a dollar. Let her loose with a credit card? he’d snorted. Not in this lifetime.

Trevor had come home one day and the dining room table was gone, and the chairs and half of the cutlery, and there were things missing it took him weeks to notice. His wife had taken the corkscrew. She had taken the oven mitts. The salt shaker that had been passed down in his father’s family for four generations. He had been making all the money for both of them; in his mind, it was for them both. And so she had taken half. There was nothing he could do to stop it. She had taken half but he had lost everything. That was the math of it.

Of course Helen pitied him; but beneath the pity was a colossal irritation.

You had someone, she wanted to shout at him. She wanted to hit him. She wanted to punch his face, and with each blow she would have said: You had someone; you had someone.

Back to work, Trevor Baxter said.

Helen pushed the Kleenex box towards him and he took one and blew his grey hairy nose, loudly, wetly, wagging it back and forth in the tissue, wiping from side to side. She saw that he was ugly; the ugliest, most misshapen man she had ever seen, and he would be alone forever, and Helen would be alone forever too.

And later in the morning he opened his door and shouted down the hall: Where is the old bat with my memo?

The girls in the office were young and they thought Helen was fair-minded. Helen could settle disputes with a tilt of her head; she was regal and intuitive about all the small hurts and poverties and flares of temper that ran like grass fires through an office; she collected for the shower gifts. Helen had something they did not have, something they aspired to but could not name. They would have been mortified to learn it was experience. They did not want experience. Helen was sad and the young women didn’t understand the sadness but they respected it. A blow had been struck, bull’s-eye, without warning, and it had scarred Helen. If such a thing should happen to one of them, they would want to survive it the way Helen had. She was not austere; she did not advise; she would not judge. Helen was what their grandmothers would have called a lady, the girls in the office thought.

These young women had missed feminism by half a decade. They thought of a lady as a woman who had achieved minor spiritual enlightenment, who was accomplished in—but ultimately eschewed—the domestic arts, vaguely romantic and generous. Helen was generous in her every gesture and the young women in the office saw she was not diminished by it. The girls knew Helen’s husband had gone down on the
Ocean Ranger
but they did not put it together with the woman who did payroll.

One day Joanne Delaney came into Helen’s office and closed the door behind her. Joanne Delaney’s eyes were glittering.

We have all decided to walk out, she said. We will walk out together. Every single one of us is willing. We are not going to let him speak to you that way any more, Helen. This is for all of us.

Even as Joanne Delaney spoke Trevor Baxter called out, Where is the old bat? Where is she?

But Helen took the situation in hand. Simmer down, Helen said. I can manage him.

. . . . .

Who’s There? 1995

to fight over a salad bowl, Cathy asked. There were two big salad bowls exactly alike. Cathy dug the bowl out from the back of the cupboard and wiped the dust out with a paper towel.

Mom, can I have this?

Why don’t you take everything, Helen said. Claire was five and starting kindergarten, and Cathy had a new apartment. They’d all gone over together for a look and it was a bloody shithole. Indoor/outdoor carpet that smelled like feet and you could hear someone on the other side of the wall opening a kitchen drawer and the clatter of cutlery.

You couldn’t fart in here, Helen had said. Without the whole world knowing.

Cathy had gone to night school and got her grade eleven, and then she’d registered at
. She’d done nursing. Helen said nursing and Cathy did nursing. All those books lying out on the dining room table. Helen would cook supper for them and she’d do the dishes while Cathy studied. Helen would put Claire to bed.

She and Claire read
Goodnight Moon
, and
Thomas the Tank Engine
, and they read Beverly Cleary and Amelia Bedelia and Five-Minute Mysteries. They read
1001 Knock-Knock Jokes
over and over, the answers printed upside down on the bottom of the page. Orange you glad I didn’t say banana. Dwayne the bathtub, I’m dwowning. Cantaloupe, I’m already married.

This had been Helen’s approach to parenting: Because I said so.

. The verb hadn’t even existed back when Helen was doing it, as far as she knew.

Helen did not take tranquilizers. Her children would never know it, but this was her approach to parenting: she was there for them. Her doctor had said pills, and she had said no. Helen was there, morning, noon, and night. That was her approach. She had wanted to die. She did not die.

The public health nurse had told pregnant fifteen-year-old Cathy: Adoption. She had said the Catholic Church offered support for girls in her situation. She didn’t say
. The public health nurses didn’t say
back then.

She had been speaking to Cathy, but she was looking at Helen.

The other children had skulked around the house during this time. There was a time when they were quiet in their rooms. They were quiet at the supper table. They were quiet while Cathy was throwing up behind the bathroom door. They could hear her retch and they heard vomit hit the toilet water and then the kettle would start to boil and it would sound like a roar. Gabrielle demanded to know what was going on. It made John stab his green peas. The tines hitting the plate
ping, ping, ping, ping
. And then he dropped the fork with a clatter.

Helen was sewing a wedding gown for Louise’s soon-to-be daughter-in-law and John had slouched against the door frame. She let the machine run the whole seam and the needle had cracked, and then she put down her glasses and said, What do you have to say for yourself?

Nothing, John said.

I am doing my best, she said. John pushed himself off the door frame with great effort and went down the hall and the screen door slammed.

Where are you going, she called after him. But he was already gone.

Cathy had raised the child with Helen, and now Cathy had a place of her own. Helen said about the expense, but they both knew it had nothing to do with money. This is the thank you, Helen thought. This is the way they say thanks these days.

Because it’s my bowl, that’s why, Helen thought. Because if I want two Jesus bowls exactly the same I’ll have two Jesus bowls. Because I said. But she did not say this.

I saw the ultrasound by mistake, Cathy had told her before Claire was born. She’d called Helen from the hospital. She was in one of those dark corridors on a smelly pay phone crawling with germs.

I saw it, Cathy said. They weren’t supposed to show me but the technician turned the screen.

She hadn’t wanted Helen at the birth.

I want to come, Helen had said.

I don’t want you to, Mom.

Why not?

Because I said, that’s why.

The agitation as the due date approached. Helen wanted to be there but Cathy wouldn’t give in.

Why can’t we raise it together, John said. Nobody spoke. I’m just asking because isn’t this, we’re supposed to be a family? Isn’t that baby related to us?

Cathy was pouring water into her glass and it went over the top and sopped into the tablecloth and she kept pouring.

Look what you’re doing, Helen said. This was parenting: let them do what they have to do.

This is hard enough, Cathy said.

The evening Cathy called from the hospital, Helen was sewing sequins on the wedding dress and there were large bunches of them on the bodice and it was all hand-done. Cathy hadn’t come home from school and it was dark. It was snowing, and Pink Floyd was coming from John’s room, which she hated. Lulu was at figure skating. Gabrielle was at Brownies. The lamplight hit a sequin and it was like a little fire on the fabric and she had the phone next to her and she could feel it was going to ring just before it rang.

BOOK: February
7.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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