Read Every Happy Family Online

Authors: Dede Crane

Tags: #families, #mothers, #daughters, #sons, #fathers, #relationships, #cancer, #Alzheimer's, #Canadian, #celebrations, #alcoholism, #Tibet, #adoption, #rugby, #short stories

Every Happy Family

Book and Copyright Information

©Dede Crane, 2013

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the publisher or a licence from The Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright). For an Access Copyright licence, visit www.accesscopyright.ca or call toll-free to 1-800-893-5777.

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Edited by Sandra Birdsell

Designed by Tania Craan

Typeset by Susan Buck

Printed and bound in Canada

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Crane, Dede

Every happy family / Dede Crane.

Issued also in electronic formats.

ISBN 978-1-55050-548-1

I. Title.

PS8605.R35E94 2013 C813'.6 C2012-908203-1

Every happy family [electronic resource] / Dede Crane.

Electronic monograph.

Issued also in print format.

ISBN 978-1-55050-738-6 (EPUB).--ISBN 978-1-55050-549-8 (PDF).--

ISBN 978-1-55050-739-3 (MOBI)

I. Title.

PS8605.R35E94 2013 C813'.6 C2012-908204-X

Available in Canada from:

2517 Victoria Avenue

Regina, Saskatchewan

Canada S4P 0T2

www.coteaubooks.com

Coteau Books gratefully acknowledges the financial support of its publishing program by: The Saskatchewan Arts Board, including the Creative Industry Growth and Sustainability Program of the Government of Saskatchewan via the Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport; the Canada Council for the Arts; the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund; and the City of Regina Arts Commission.

Introduction

It took place over the course of five years...

a slow unraveling of life in the weave she recognized

and at times believed she herself had woven.

It began in early April, 2006, with young and old alike.

JILL

The smallest construction of sound is
helplessly
built around silence. One cannot exist without the other.
She likes his use of the word helplessly.
Similarly every sound can only exist if heard, and hearing only exists when there's sound. Because every experience must occur within relationship, if a tree falls in a forest and no ears are there to hear it, it has not made any sound.

It's Sunday morning and, the only one up on at this hour, she has made coffee, wandered to the kitchen table and scanned the opening line of the student essay on top of the pile. Now she steps up to the French doors looking out on the back patio and yard beyond to search for the two ducks that have recently taken up residence. Their woody colours blend in so well it's like hunting objects hidden in a drawing. There. Sleeping a foot apart among the brittle fountains of last year's annuals, beaks buried under wings, the two smooth oval presences bring the yard into focus, give it new purpose, as the kids are past playing within its confines. She sips her coffee, traces its thread of warmth down her throat. The morning's quiet is intoxicating, and for a suspended moment she is nobody's wife, daughter, mother, sister, teacher, colleague, and the tension that by the end of each day girds the muscles of her neck doesn't exist. She imagines a sleeping duck tucked into the crook of her neck like a downy headrest, warm as a hot water bottle, the soothing vibration of a live creature. Make that one fat duck on either side.

She steps sideways to get a better view of them and something crunches under her slipper. Popcorn like a game of jacks is scattered on the floor behind the couch that separates the kitchen from the family room. Jill's focus shrinks to the kids' dirty mugs of hot chocolate on the coffee table, the smudged water glasses, greasy bowl, the bag of marshmallows left open and growing stale. Les's precious cooking knives laid out on the island – including an expensive new cleaver, though she didn't know what was wrong with the old one – all waiting to be sharpened and transferred to their leather holder that his sister, Annie, made out of repurposed bomber jackets. The empty milk carton on the counter, a trail of chocolate powder, greasy saucepan. The kitchen is spotless when she goes to bed and, as if she's only dreamed it, messy the next morning.

It's her fault, she spoils the kids, wants them to believe that the goodness in their lives – cleanliness, meals, paid electric bills, hot water – happens effortlessly, magically, so they can be carefree as long as possible. But that sort of love has its breaking point, she thinks, hit by a swell of weariness as the day's tasks unfurl before her: wash towels and sheets, return Pema's backpack with the broken zipper for a new one, mark a half-dozen essays, nail down the title for her paper. And Les works this afternoon, which means she has to drive to and from Beau's rugby game and somehow figure out dinner. Reduced to a checklist, the day is now something to conquer, and because she never does anything halfway, conquer well.

Jill takes a bracing sip of coffee and glances at the stove clock. Two minutes past eight. Every Sunday morning she is someone's daughter, and she pictures her mother planted beside her phone growing a shade desperate. She sweeps up the popcorn and piles the dirty dishes into the sink so at least the counters are clear. Presses number one on her speed-dial, looking forward to today's conversation because she can use some motherly advice about the letter which is right now burning a hole in her underwear drawer. She hasn't told Les about it, not yet, because she knows just how he'll react. The phone on the other end rings only once.

“Hello?” Her mother sounds wide-eyed, as if she can't imagine who's calling.

“Hi, Mom. It's me.”

Jill's mother, Nancy, seventy-nine, lives across the strait in North Vancouver in the family home still, despite Jill's gentle suggestions it might be time for a change – a condo near the seniors' centre and with no garden to maintain.

“Jillian. How's your weather on the Island? It's been overcast here all week. It's like living one's life behind a veil.”

Jill sees the drake lift his head, its rainbow-slick feathers catching and bending the light.

“The fog fills the inlet and rises up and up...”

His neck does a one-eighty as he aims his beak at his sleeping mate and looks miffed she's not awake.

“Even with your dad's binoculars the mountains are difficult to...”

With a shudder – of annoyance? – he burrows his head back under a wing.

“...but it's supposed to lift by this afternoon,” finishes Nancy, punching the word noon just like that irritating weatherwoman on the late news.

As Jill understands there's been a pause she failed to fill, her mother asks, “And how's your work, dear?”

An itinerant linguistics scholar, Jill lives on Vancouver Island, in Victoria. Her mother used to ferry over once a month and stay for the weekend but had to give up her driver's license as a result of floaters and bicycles, among other distractions.

“Great. Fine.” In bygone times she would have included her mother in choosing the title of her paper.

“So all's well with the family?”

“We're hanging in there,” says Jill on a sigh, having never gotten past wanting a little sympathy from her mother. “Beau broke his thumb in a game. I was in the middle of a class when I got the call. Had to drop everything and drive him to the hospital.”

“Beau?”

“Playing his rugby. They set the bone in a splint. They don't cast thumbs, and it should be fine if he doesn't re-injure it. The doctor said he'd have to sit out the rest of the season.”

“I remember your brother chasing you around the backyard,” says Nancy, and Jill, all too familiar with the story, chimes along in her head, “
with the wicker basket
, which he put over your face and you fell and
broke your arm
. You were –”

“Twelve. I was twelve,” Jill says to hurry things along, “Kenneth, ten and he –”

“Was
big for his age
and didn't understand
his own strength
.”

What is it with older people and their repetition? As Nancy keeps talking, Jill checks her impatience, focuses instead on the quality of her mother's voice. She always tells her first-years that it was her mother who inspired her love of language because of the way she told bedtime stories, with a hushed deliberation, the kind of shy song that forced a child to quiet her thoughts in order to listen. It was a technique Nancy had learned as a grade three teacher, and Jill used to have to punch up the volume on the phone to hear her properly. Now, sadly, she doesn't bother.

“...broke my collarbone twice, once as a child falling out of the grand oak in our backyard,
the finest climbing tree in the neighbourhood
. And again when you and Kenneth were in high school,
catching your clumsy father
when he stumbled down the front steps.”

“He was clumsy all right,” says Jill, aware of repeating herself now. Her mother's memories of Dad, seven years dead, have airbrushed out his drinking, his passive violence.

“And how are the boys?” says Nancy.

“Les managed to find Quinn a job at his new restaurant. As a line cook.”

“In that nice restaurant with the water running down the walls?”

“No, that place didn't make it. Closed in November. Did I not tell you?” She might have been too upset about it at the time, because as second chef Les was finally making a decent wage. They had almost paid off their line of credit.

“I worry that you work too hard.”

“I'm okay, Mom,” says Jill, smiling to hear her say it. “It took a while but he's found another job. And hey, one of the profs is retiring next year. If I get one more paper published I should have a shot.” She's been a long-term sessional in the department for ten years now, but knows that having received her doctorate from this same university is a count against her.

“Should have a shot,” echoes Nancy.

“We'll see. Hey, I persuaded Quinn to apply to the university's new architecture program. He's too arty to settle for engineering. And with his math grades, he won't have any problems getting accepted or,” – she lowers her voice – “winning the entrance scholarship I applied for on his behalf. With his kind of focus, that kid will be exceptional at anything he does. By the way, the scholarship is between you and me. He's not good with rejection.”

“Between you and me.”

“Were you able to open those pictures I sent? Of his New Year's grad?” It was the first high-school dance their shy son had attended. Jill and Les figured it was because he finally had a girlfriend to go with.

“Pictures?”

“That I sent to your email?” To make up for Jill not visiting as often as Nancy would like, Jill had given Nancy her old laptop with the notion of Skyping together and emailing family photos.

“Why don't you put them in the mail. I can't get that machine to work. I may be getting interference from my tenants.”

With some persuading, Nancy converted her downstairs into an apartment, then Jill found a gay couple to move in, knowing men downstairs would make Nancy feel safer. She'd bargained the cost of utilities in exchange for taking responsibility of the garden.

“I told you it doesn't work that way, Mom. Your tenants are both computer programmers you know. You might ask them to help you.”

“I don't like to bother them,” says Nancy, and Jill knows what's coming.
“It's not like they're family.”

She refuses to feel guilty. “Do you want me to ask them?”

“No, no. I'll wait for you. When are you coming?”

“Mom, I can't possibly visit until end of term and after my marks are in and my paper's thesis nailed down. So, first of June hopefully.”

“Oh.” Nancy sounds hurt.

Please don't do that, thinks Jill.

“The doctor has changed my thyroid prescription,” says Nancy. “Those are the little blue pills.”

She hates her working title, “Occitan's Morphemic Influence on the Romance Languages.” It lacks the rhythmic accents she's looking for, though it's better than the childish beats of her first one, “The Fall of Langue D'Occ and Rise of Langue D'Oui.”

“And now my legs are less crampy in the morning.”

She could mix affirmative and negative, “Langue d' Occ, The Dying Language of Yes.” She grabs a pen to write that down.

“Do you remember John Early?” asks Nancy, suddenly animated.

“John Early?” Jill prints the title, holds the page up to see how it looks.

“His wife, who died some time ago, worked for your father, and we used to have dinners together.”

“I'm sorry?”

“John and Katie Early used to have us over for dinner. Their home was over on, what was the name of that street...”

There's a flurry of activity in the yard; the drake is chasing after the female. He looks furious. A mating ritual, or something Mrs. Duck said?

“Anyway, John's undergone an operation,” Nancy says. “Today. Yes, today. Nothing major. His gallbladder.”

“Dad had his gallbladder out.”

“Yes, and remember how he couldn't lift anything and we waited on him hand and foot?”

“You waited on him hand and foot.” The drake flaps and bounces on the female's back, his beak stabbing at her neck. The brutality lasts about four seconds before he hops off, takes a few drunken steps and then straightens out.

“John's house has stairs, which make things difficult, and he shouldn't be home alone after his operation.”

“Sooo...” The female duck waddles towards the pan of water Jill put out yesterday. Fucked duck, she thinks and covers the mouthpiece of the phone. “Fucked duck,” she says aloud, enjoying the back-to-back bump of the letters D and the see-saw play of the tongue. “Fucked duck.”

“So I've invited him to stay here.”

“What's that?”

“I've invited him to stay here.”

Jill eases up the volume on the phone. “John?”

“Early.”

“Mom, are you serious?”

There's a pause and then Nancy says, “Yes.”

“You can't be taking care of him. You're not up to being someone's –”

“I can make him toast when I make mine,” she says. “Two cups of tea instead of one, talk to him, play a game of cards. He'll have a nurse come check on him. He's on the Meals on Wheels plan like me, and I've arranged for his meals to be delivered here with mine.”

When did she arrange all this? “Are you still afraid of being alone?” Last fall there'd been a robbery in the neighbourhood, that, at the time, was all her mother could talk about.

“I did tell you there was a break-in. That ghastly purple house around the corner. With the beige deck.”

“Don't you think it's time to sell, Mom? You could get a condo over here on the Island.”

“I want to
die with my view
and my garden. Condos don't have any
cross-ventilation
.”

“How long is this John fellow planning to stay?”

“John Early? We're going to take it day by day.”

“Whose idea was this?” She knows what a pushover her mother can be.

“Mine. In fact, I insisted.”

She only hopes it's true. “So it's a temporary arrangement?”

“Yes.”

“Good. But really, Mom, having a sick person around?”

“It'll be nice having company.”

Jill holds her tongue and sips her coffee.

“John has a computer too and can help me out with my problem.”

Out of curiosity she has to ask, “Have you, or does he, I mean are you interested in each other in any romantic sort of way?”

Nancy lets go a flutter of a laugh. “Oh, not any more, Jilli. I'm too old for that nonsense.”

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