Authors: Joan Barfoot
“Yeah, but I think I'll hit the john. Or at least the line-up for it.”
“No, the Scotch. And the excitement. Anticipation. Shit, Lila, you don't know how much I've looked forward to this.”
He is such a goddamn sweet man, she could squeeze the life out of him.
How is the atmosphere in his household? Thick with secrets, of which Lila is surely the thickest? Or is it mainly an efficient, time-tabled flurry of two busy, preoccupied people?
Tom keeps secrets in all directions. He has more than the usual quota of privacies.
“You have no faith,” he has several times complained. In him, he means. “Trust me,” he says, and she does, as best she can.
He will talk freely about his daughters, if not his wife. He speaks of them proudly, and as if they are holy, and as if, even now, he can make them, good or ill, what they will be.
“But,” Lila has argued, from the disadvantaged viewpoint of the childless, “you can't ever tell what's going to go ping in a mind. You have no idea what'll be remembered, or how, or why, for that matter.”
“I know,” he agreed, “you're right,” but his heart wasn't in it.
What Lila meant, though, is that, for instance, no one would have imagined Aunt June would have stuck, somewhat larger than warranted, in Lila's own mind: a woman long dead, who wasn't really an aunt, and who probably wasn't even especially fond of Lila. Has she ever mentioned Aunt June to Tom? She's told him so much, it's hard to keep track.
Each summer of her childhood, her parents and Lila and Don made the hundred-mile drive to spend a week with her mother's parents. As they turned in the laneway, Lila's grandmother would be stepping from the old brick farmhouse, her hair wrapped in a thin braid around her head, her arms open, her print housedress (whatever happened to housedresses? Same thing that happened to housewives, Lila supposes) protected by an apron, her face flushed from the heat of her kitchen.
Lila flew from the back seat into those arms. Don tore off to the barn and its haymows and kittens and breathtaking sweet-sour smells. Later the two of them would cross paths, switch places, and sometimes they were even together, climbing into trees and haymows, catching frogs, wading in the little river.
Every year, that small summer period was suspended from real time. In that household, people even older than her parents were in charge, and those older people were wholly indulgent, embracing. Lila, off her watchful hook, felt feverish with relief.
The good part about going to see Aunt June, who was actually a neighbour, was that Lila's grandmother would pack a small picnic and they'd head off, the two of them hand in hand together along the path the cattle and farm equipment used through the fields. Her grandmother identified birds, and pointed out groundhog holes, and she and Lila discussed the shapes of clouds and she called to the cattle, who each year frightened Lila for a while, until she got accustomed again to their peaceful, limpid curiosity.
How old was she before she understood they were being fattened up for slaughter? She knows she saw her grandfather slightly differently then.
Lila's grandmother, who smelled of laundry, lilac and yeast, and who had many tones of voice, told her, “Be nice, now. I know June's a little bit different, but she's my very good friend.” She was, Lila guesses, her grandmother's version of Patsy, or Nell; who are, as far as Lila knows, the only people in the world aware of where she is now and how she is spending these two weeks.
When June was in her early twenties, a tractor rolled over on her fatherâ“squashed him flat,” Lila's grandmother saidâand her mother died a few months later. “Broken heart.” Was that possible? It sounded terribly romantic.
If Lila's father died, Lila was sure her mother's heart wouldn't break. Her mother's heart seemed more tuned to outside sorrows, and somewhat hardened to her own.
Lila tried to imagine what would happen to herself and Don if either her father or her mother died. How they would feel. Her mind went blank; as, apparently, did June's, more or less. She stayed on alone, on her little patch of land, but since, Lila's grandmother said, she blamed machinery for her father's death, and thus her mother's, she refused, like a Mennonite, to have anything to do with it again. So she never drove a car, and wouldn't have an electric stove. She had an old wood one and cut her own wood for it, because obviously she wouldn't hear of a chainsaw. She grew her own vegetables, and for other supplies she either walked four miles to town and back, or somebody like Lila's grandparents picked things up for her. Naturally there was no vacuum cleaner, and she did all her washing by hand and hung it out on a clothesline.
She must have been very angry. Her father was careless with machinery, her mother didn't love her enough to stay alive, and so, it appeared, June turned her own life ridiculously, fanatically over.
She also raised goats, quite a different and more disagreeable matter than cattle, and when Lila and her grandmother reached June's land, her grandmother scooted them through the gate, keeping a good grip on Lila's hand and the picnic basket. “Now, don't show fear,” she'd say. “They won't bother you if you look bold and confident.” Which Lila considers one of the more useful lessons she learned from her grandmother, although it didn't exactly work with the goats, which came racketing up, butting each other and sniffing and taking little runs at Lila and her grandmother, who kept saying things like “Keep moving now, we'll be there in a minute,” and “Shoo,” and “Keep back, you nasty thing.”
Past June's rickety porch, and the screen door with its holes and dents, there wereâwhat else?âmore goats: lying in the kitchen; galumphing around the living room; resting on Aunt June's bed, on top of beautiful, wrecked old quilts. There'd be a kid or two being bottle-fed, or a billy cleaning off Aunt June's breakfast plate, because she just set dishes down on the floor to be licked. She said she and the goats didn't have anything they couldn't give each other; which is why Lila's grandmother packed their lunch.
Still, June sold milk and cheese and nobody died from it. It's true men didn't ask her out to dinner, but they did buy goats from her and slaughter them, which was the one thing she wouldn't do herself. Lila's grandmother said, “June, it really might be easier for you if you didn't give them names.” But she did; the moment one was born she'd call it something. Lila remembers June introducing her to one lounging on the bed. “This is Delilah, she's a lovely little girl just like you. Would you like to pet her?”
Frankly, Lila thought Aunt June herself looked a bit goatish, scrawny, brown and slightly whiskered. How could this person be the best friend of her own fastidious grandmother?
But when the two of them talked, what revelations for a listening child! Who was getting married, who wasn't, who was pregnantâ“expecting”âand who wasn't, who was fighting or drinking or carrying on.
It's rather sweet that that's what they called it: carrying on.
They had some concept of what they called “decency.” From what Lila could tell, they considered it the basic requirement for fixing almost any difficulty, and judged it to have less to do with rules than with tolerance: giving people room. This would have been especially evident to June, who must have known people found her odd. Certainly Lila, off in a corner eating her sandwiches, dodging the goats, thought she was weird.
Lila still suspects June and her grandmother were right, though: that if their version of decency were a first principle, the rest would only be details. Tom, however, when she suggested that once, looked almost insulted. “I expect there's more to politics and history than that, really.”
“I wonder. Really. Politics and history are the details, but humane behaviour, respectâthat might be the true trick.” But it was not a subject to linger over. She and Tom are not necessarily a good pair to discuss decent behaviour. Look at them.
On the other hand, Lila has considerable respect, which is surely at least part of a decent regard, for Tom's wife. She can make the argument (although not with Tom, who's touchy) that Dorothy is a grown-up woman, not a bit helpless, who can see what is there to be seen if she wants, and can make her own choices, as in some respects she already has. She is fully equal to Lila, or Tom, in all this; and more than equal in some ways.
As reasoning goes, that may tip towards the specious. At least it's tortuous; although it's also gratifying, how supple Lila's mind can be. It makes her laugh.
When she and Tom reach England, will they still dodge certain subjects? But from that great distance, certain subjects may not be interesting, or important. The two of them will be very busy with pleasure, using time, building their pictures together.
Lila's grandmother said she would have loved to travel, but she never could. With June, she laid out her troubles the way June set down plates for the goats, which was how Lila heard she was sometimes lonely and not always happy. Once, Lila's grandfather gave her a box of chocolates and she was so touched she was almost in tears telling June. Or for all Lila knew, she was almost in tears for something else. “I'm so tired,” she said.
Who else could she say that to but June, who didn't tell her, “Buck up,” or “Really, though, you're very lucky.” She said, “I know,” and “Yes.” They were friends. Then, to Lila, this was affection of an unfamiliar kind.
The autumn Lila was ten or eleven, after her family was home from their holiday, June slipped in her yard, cracked her head, knocked herself out and also broke her hip. She lay outside in the rain for more than a day, until a man looking to buy cheese finally found her. She died in the hospital a few days later, of pneumonia.
When her grandmother told Lila this on the telephone, her voice was dry and unsentimental. Lila was startled by death, someone she knew, and sad for her grandmother, truly, but she was too young to have a real notion of how much the event must have mattered. “I'm really sorry, Grandma,” she said. Those weren't enough words for the occasion; scrambling for more, she asked, “What happened to the goats?”
There was a pause, and when her grandmother spoke again, her voice had a choking sound that made Lila feel awful. She had said the wrong thing? Or her clumsy sympathy was of no use? “Your grandfather took care of them. They were sold off for slaughter. He's bought up her land, too.” He'd have had no more idea than Lila why her grandmother was upset about that, and if he had known, how could he have understood? What he had done, tidying up June's small estate, would have made kind, practical and profitable sense to him.
It did not seem strange to Lila that it was not her grandmother and grandfather who were best friends. What was strange, what she hadn't considered before, was that grown-ups needed best friends, leaned on them, cared for them as best they could, and grieved for them. Her grandmother and June also gave Lila her first notion of women who wear different faces and speak different words when they're together. As Lila, Nell and Patsy do. Probably Lila's grandmother and June had their disagreements, just as Lila, Nell and Patsy do.
Nell's three-so-far marriages have certainly puzzled the other twoâwhat exactly is it she wants?âand Patsy's divorce was a trial for them all. They were both on hand when Lila met Geoff, her last lover before Tom, and listened sympathetically when she left him. She doesn't know quite what they think of Tom. “You know,” Patsy told her one Saturday night over drinks, “when it comes down to it, we don't give a shit about him. He seems okay, but you're the one we care about.”
“So,” Nell threw in, “if he fucks you around, we'll just have to hurt him, real bad.” They could all laugh, but in hard and unsafe circumstances, it was still a comfort.
What they tell each other, Lila and Patsy and Nell, is that what they will have, in the end, is each other. “We sound,” Patsy said, “like kids swearing a blood oath. Should we cut ourselves and pool our blood?”
Nell snorted. “We're women, for god's sake. We don't have to cut ourselves to get blood.”
The three of them began teaching about the same time, Patsy in psychology, Nell and Lila in English. They may have met over common difficulties, being women on an unhelpful campus, and in alliances and little plots; but it was an easy step to fondness, and then to confidences. Like love, there is a chemistry to friendship. None of them would dream of telling all their secrets, they're not ridiculous, but they can tell what they want to.
Which is why Nell and Patsy are the only people who know Lila's here.
If she can't remember telling Tom about June, she knows she told them. About, among other things, June's extreme response to a couple of extreme events, the choice she must have made in favour of huge consequences over ordinary limits. “And you know,” Lila said, “it looked like something that could happen so easily. Almost naturally. Do you see what I mean?”
“But,” said Nell, “as you say, it's about consequences, isn't it? Risks are easy enough, as long as you can take the results.” But Nell is braver than either Patsy or Lila, who has not been inclined towards either her grandmother's housedressy, stoic grace or June's gum-booted eccentricity.
Tom seems unable to grasp properly that parents in general, he specifically, can have no idea of the small random moments, obscure influences, undigested observations that create unexpected, unintended fears and desires and patterns in their children. “I know you're important,” Lila would like to say, “but lighten up. Not everything has to do with the benign or passionate intentions of parents.”