Authors: Suzanne Alyssa Andrew
The following chapters were previously published:
“HÃ©lÃ¨ne” and “Lucy” appeared in
magazine as stories (“Circle of Stones” and “Extreme Ironing”). Both chapters appear here in altered form.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
â T.S. Eliot, from “Little Gidding”
reaches up to turn on the lamp. Hand on his arm, pulling him back down onto the futon mattress. The hand is soft, cool, and he will do anything to feel it on his skin. He leaves the light off.
“I see you,” she says. “It's like a vision.”
“What am I doing?”
Her face is obscured in shadow, and he doesn't know if she's joking. He traces the curve of her right ear, mapping it with the tip of his index finger. “You're a vision.”
“I'm a performer. It's just a dance I do.” She turns, sits up in the near dark. “It's all an ill-ooohhh-sion,” she singsongs, her voice low and raspy. He watches the shadows cast by her hands as she sorts through their clothes scattered across the floor. The shape of her arms as she reaches up, slipping his black T-shirt over her head â like victory. He considers the triumph of this moment, the slick of sweat on his chest. A small clatter, then the sound of a striking match. Her face glows. He reaches for her. She blows the match out, darts across the room, lights another one, glows, blows it out.
“Hey,” he lunges toward her shadow, misses. Looks up at another glow. “Come here. I can't keep up.” She whirls then stops. Two matches in a row fail to spark. She tries a third. Glows and spins.
“Your performance better not burn the apartment down.” He grabs her ankle. Narrow. Solid. “Hah â caught you.”
He pulls at her ankle, grabs at her waist, picks her up, and deposits her back on the muddle of blankets on the futon. She thwacks him with a pillow, giggling, as he yanks the pillow from her arms.
“Wait â I'll show you everything.” She jumps up again. Another match strikes. This time she lights the red taper jammed in the mouth of an empty wine bottle. She leans down, rummages through her bag then holds up a small velveteen pouch. She crawls back onto the futon, pushes him onto his back, and straddles him.
“Hold still.” She shuffles the cards and begins to lay them out on his chest. The cards smell like the inside of her dance bag. Feet, sweaty tights, rosin, and lavender.
“No.” He takes her tiny wrists in his hands. A gentle stop. “No tarot.”
She swats his arms away, turns over the top card in the deck, the one he'd inadvertently touched. Dread in her eyes. He looks down at the card now affixed to his chest with beads of sweat. A knight lying face down in the mud, stabbed in the back, a darkened horizon.
“Ten of swords.” She shifts off him. “It's not as bad as it looks. See, there's bits of light here, and here.” She points to the misty sky in the illustration. “It's about change.”
“You don't sound convinced.” He rolls over, knocks the cards off his chest, collects them into a stack, and hands them back to her.
“That's not your reading, it's just one card. It's like the first sentence. Or one bar of music.” Nik is silent. She hesitates, concedes, places the cards back into their pouch. She leans into him, letting him envelop her with long arms. He touches her hair. She tucks her legs against his, clutches the tarot pouch, pulls the duvet and a blanket over them.
“Come home with me,” he says into her ear. “Let's go to the island for spring break. I'll take you to the beach.”
“It's too cold.”
“It'll be like a little holiday.”
“I have rehearsals.”
“You can relax for a few days.”
“You know I have auditions coming up. A performance, too.”
“Jen.” He sighs and strokes her hair some more, examining the whorls and waves. He likes the dark coarseness of it and imagines the long strands as a series of strong ropes to climb, the way in to see what she's thinking. “My grandma will cook us dinner.”
“Nikky.” She loosens his arms, leans off the bed, blows out the candle. Drops the pouch on the floor. He pulls her close, feels her hand on his arm again. She falls asleep first and her hand slips off. He falls to the steady rhythm of her breathing and does not let go.
, cool sea air blows through the open window. The scent of salt mingled with seaweed and cedar. But the wind shifts. My condominium doesn't need to smell like the nearby salmon smokehouse. I get up, shut the window, and sit back down in my comfortable easy chair. My teacup rattles in its saucer. Sometimes my hands shake enough to spill it. They're becoming as independent as teenagers. Nothing seems to work, but I keep trying. Doctor's scripts and pills, self-prescribed shots of brandy. Some days all I can do is apply the force of what I thought was considerable will. Today I lean back in my chair, close my eyes, and daydream. I think of my grandson, Nikky. I would like to knit him a sweater, but I'm not sure I still can. The steady twisting of yarn over needles and counting of rows and stitches could ease my worries. It would be like having a conversation. I still have so much I'd like to teach him.
My thoughts drift and I remember the day I saw the first circle of stones. It was one of those sharp, cool mid-winter days, when even in the rain, you can tell the light is changing. I rock in my chair and watch my memories like cinema. That was the day Geoff had forgotten to bring my groceries. Again. I was furious, but instead of stewing alone at home, I ventured out for a stroll through the coastal mist. I walked slowly, methodically. Carefully. As I rounded the corner of the sea walk where the path widens into Rotary Beach Park, I looked up to see the view: rolling green-blue water, the dancing-arm boughs of the tall trees. My eye caught something white. I stepped through wet grass to look. There were a dozen freshly painted white stones at the foot of a sturdy evergreen. A toy truck decorated with glitter glue nestled on a tidy patch of bark mulch inside the circle, along with three gaudy orange plastic flowers and a Mason jar stuffed with cards and handwritten letters. “Mike the Trucker” was scrawled on the toy rig.
I shook my head and made a
sound in dismay. I'd read about the unfortunate fellow in the newspaper. The story stuck with me: Mike was on the side of the road trying to fix a blown tire when a young man speeding to make the Vancouver ferry hit him, dragging him under his sports car for hundreds of metres. The young man kept driving. Mike's crumpled body rolled into a ditch, and still he kept driving. It made me wonder how many kids grow up without learning the right kinds of things in life. It made me think of Geoff. Because somehow, even though I guided hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of children during my decades-long tenure as an elementary school vice-principal, I failed my own son.
It began to get dark, and I walked home in winter twilight, taking one slow step at a time. The bright lights of my ocean-view condominium shone like a beacon. Coming home, I took a deep breath of fresh laundry smell in the crisp and immaculate lobby. I picked up the weekly flyers from the stack on the oak newspaper table, then frowned at my mist-melted silver curls in the antique mirror. On the way to the elevator I glanced up the curve of the grand, milk-coloured stairway and saw a pair of brown Florsheims. That's when I began to shake.
My neighbour Charles was lying on the carpeted steps in his suit, his briefcase upturned, files scattered. Papers and forms cascaded around his immobile legs. I stumbled down the hall. I stood in front of the superintendent's door, barely able to lift my hands and make fists to bang for help. I knocked and knocked again until the door swung open. Somehow I squeaked out the words “call nine one one.” Then I returned to Charles to wait with him for the ambulance. Even when I realized he was still breathing I shook and quivered, my Parkinson's triggering tremors independent of my anxieties. If it weren't for my solid, ugly orthopedic shoes, I would have lost my balance entirely.
The blaring ambulance sirens were followed by hushed hallway whispers and stares. I overheard Louise De Costa and Doris Lu speculating about it on my way to fetch the newspaper the next morning. When I passed them again they were still talking â debating whether it had been an aneurysm or a massive heart attack. I discounted both theories. Charles returned after a two-night stay in hospital and avoided eye contact with me, and everyone else in the building. He kept to himself, even after his office, Coast Tyee Insurance, published his retirement notice in the
. I understood it was a forced retirement, as a result of his illness. Not an event to be celebrated. I watched and waited for days, then finally cornered him in the mailroom. I wanted to find out if he was all right â from him, not the neighbours.
I clutched three envelopes. All bills. I watched as Charles stuck his hand searchingly into his empty mailbox then locked it back up, turning the key with a sigh.
“Congratulations on your retirement, Charles.” I enunciated each syllable. When nervous, I still have a tendency to speak as though I'm making an announcement over my school's P.A. system. “We'll be seeing more of you around here, I expect.” A rare patch of sun shone through the lobby windows and glinted off mailbox steel. I surveyed the carpet pattern. Charles fussed with his new cane. Then he cleared his throat.
“I had a diabetic attack last week, HÃ©lÃ¨ne,” he said, in his slow, steady business voice. He stared past me, making his admission to the mailboxes. Then his voice softened. “Thank you for helping me.”
“You're welcome. I was glad to.” I hesitated, not sure what else to say, and took two small steps towards the hall.
“I've had to make some changes, and now the doctor says I have to start walking every day to control this condition,” Charles continued. “But no hills and no stairs.” I looked back just as Charles lowered his chin and cast his eyes to meet mine, his white eyebrows pinched. The way this facial expression revealed exactly what he was thinking reminded me of my grandson.
“Sounds boring,” he said.
“I'll walk with you,” I volunteered. “I start to fidget when I stay inside too much.”
I did not add that my son Geoff had taken my driver's licence away. It was humiliating. Geoff said my hands shook too much on the wheel, even though I could still turn it â quite capably, I thought.
I began meeting Charles in the lobby downstairs at ten every morning. We chose the sea walk as our route, a long path following the Georgia Strait from one end of town to the other. The narrow old island highway stretched beside the paved path, but the sound of the tide somehow drowned out the buzzing traffic. We rarely talked anyway. There was no need to comment on the view of the Pacific, the mainland mountains, the bobbing fishing boats, and the occasional sleek cruise ship. At times, our silences felt weighted. With history, memories, things we did not wish to talk about. But over the days, weeks, then months that followed, the marine ephemera â even the odd seal or heron â became routine. At first I slowed and stopped with Charles when he needed to rest. But, in time, as Charles grew stronger, he set the pace, until finally I realized he was slowing and pausing for me. I was startled the first time Charles reached for my arm to help guide me around a puddle. After that, I took note whenever Charles accidentally brushed his shoulder against me, or put his hand on my back to signal it was time to cross the street. It was simultaneously comforting and comfortable.
I remember now, with embarrassment, how I kept telling Charles that my grandson would be visiting on spring reading break from his studies at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver. I must have mentioned it when we were walking one day, then repeated it the next. I know I blurted it out again one especially rainy Friday. I didn't realize I'd mentioned it more than once until Charles said, “Yes, you must really be looking forward to it, HÃ©lÃ¨ne.” He gave me a patient look, but I made a note for myself on my mountain scenes calendar:
Nikky's visit. Charles informed.
For a few days I even stopped adding as much Baileys to my morning coffee, even though I relied on it for steadiness. I sacrificed a measure of control for a clearer mind. I don't want Charles to think I'm muddled.
Nikky is going to arrive in town today. I add a little brandy to my tea, rock gently, and wait. I expect the phone call in the evening. The visit tomorrow morning. But the phone rings at three in the afternoon, startling me. Nikky is at the bus station.
“Mom's got a dog show tonight and when Dad saw me with metal in my face, he turned around and got back into his truck,” Nikky says. “Can I stay with you?”
“Of course, dear.” I feel a quivery thrill to hear Nikky's young voice. I put on a warm cardigan, grab my keys and wallet, and make my way downstairs to the lobby so I can pay the cab driver when Nikky arrives. I wait and wait. I finally take a seat on the hard, decorative wooden bench by the stairs. Maybe Nikky couldn't find a cab. Maybe I'd misheard and he's not coming right away. I stand and gaze out the glass lobby doors. In the distance I see a tall, dark figure walking in the shallow ditch beside the highway, a couple of large transport trucks, no bright orange and green cab. I adjust my glasses. Watch the shadows grow. It begins to rain. The figure turns towards the condo. Nikky? No.
I stand up and push the door open. Nikky drops his overstuffed, dirty duffel bag to give me a hug. I let him envelop me with too-thin arms, cold cheeks and chin, the sharp smell of unwashed clothes. When I look into his face I see the smoothness of youth before noticing the little spike he's added to his eyebrow and the ring in his nose. It seems impossible my son could think Nikky's two pieces of silver are so offensive. I don't think it's any worse than the snake tattoo Geoff came home with at Nikky's age, back in the early eighties. And Geoff had been returning from a logging camp, not school. I squeeze Nikky's hand and remember being upset at my son. My ex-husband Tibor had been furious. It's a circular moment. A kind of loop only grandparents can see.
“Let's get you something to eat.” I reach up and tug at Nikky's ear. “You're too skinny.” Nikky shoulders his bag and follows me. When I look back he smiles, but there's a raw look in his eyes. I choose to interpret it as hunger.
“Let's stop in at my storage unit first,” I say, rattling my keys. “You can help me get some things from the deep freeze. I've been saving them for you.”
Upstairs Nikky falls asleep on the sofa as I cook. A proper roast beef dinner with horseradish, baked potatoes, and dill pickles. A big bottle of red wine, the fine silverware, real china, and proper white linen napkins. Nikky eats two helpings of beef and three Yorkshire puddings, even though the meat is dry and the puff peaks of the Yorkshires fall. I sip wine, nibble a Yorkshire and a small potato. It's more satisfying to watch Nikky eat. I wish I could still cook for him the way I used to. It's been a long time since I've managed a soufflÃ© or a tourtiÃ¨re. After dinner is done and the dishes are all washed I bring out a couple of bottles of my finest bourbon, setting them down on the coffee table with two crystal glasses. Nikky lounges on the sofa, I sit in my chair and we watch television. He changes the channels so quickly I don't know what we're watching. It doesn't matter.
I feel warm and hazy. My eyelids are heavy. I awake, hoping I've only nodded off for a few minutes. I smile at Nikky and push myself out of my chair. I trace my finger along the smooth hallway wall, but I don't wobble. I'm as steady as bourbon. I open the linen closet door and rummage for the spare pillows. Nikky begins talking softly on the phone. I set the vinyl storage bags down and try to hear, but Nikky's voice is too quiet, almost monosyllabic. Not a friend or a parent. Perhaps a girl. I pick up the bedding and head for the guest room. Nikky's other room. I made up the sofa bed for my grandson many times when Nikky was small and his parents were fighting. Or tired. Or away. I used to read to him to help him fall asleep. After he drifted off I would watch over him, trying to protect him from bad dreams. He slept on his side, curled like a snail, blankets bunched up over his back like a little shell home.
I wrestle with the sofa bed mattress. I don't remember it being so heavy. I sit down on the edge of mattress to rest and smell something damp and pungent. Nikky's bag festers in the corner by the closet. It's a smell that lingers in my nose, even after I retire to my room. I tuck a French lavender sachet under my pillow and made a mental note to run a load of laundry the next day.
I wake up thirsty. I peer at my clock radio, but I can't decipher the numbers. I guess it's long after midnight. On my way to the kitchen for a glass of water, I pause at the guest room door, expecting it to be open so I can peek in at my grandson, watch him sleep in his blanket shell. The hallway nightlight glows green. I stand in ghastly pea soup shadows and press on Nikky's door with shaky hands. For the first time, the door is shut tight.
In the morning I make a big breakfast of toast, scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, and beer. Nikky is quiet, and every time I think of a question I want to ask, I hesitate. I want to know whether his apartment is decent and if he has a girlfriend. Instead, I offer him more blueberry jam, another egg, the last slice of bacon. When his plate is finally empty, I stand.
“Now dear,” I say, looking at him over the rims of my glasses. “Would you like to go for a walk with my neighbour Charles and me?” I don't wait for his muffled reply before walking to the front door. I reach into the metal umbrella stand and hand him my spare. I know the beer will soften him up. Once downstairs, I start out by popping my umbrella open. The mist still gets in everywhere, but it's my ritual.
Charles eyes Nikky's black military-style steel-toes. “Those are some sturdy-looking boots,” he says. I'm surprised when he doesn't comment on the metal spikes sticking out of Nikky's leather jacket.
“Thanks.” Nikky flips up his collar over shrugged shoulders. Charles walks on one side of me, Nikky on the other, both silent. I imagine how the neighbours see us meandering down the path together: an elderly man in a ball cap, a shaky old lady in a proper cashmere twin set and matching silver overcoat, and tall Nikky, clad in black from head to toe, like a cartoon villain.