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Authors: Carol Windley

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Home Schooling (9 page)

BOOK: Home Schooling
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“In a way,” he said, folding his newspaper.

Had she lived here long, he asked. She started to say since she was sixteen, then lied and said all her life. She was, she said later, thinking of Jonah.

“All your life?” Nolan Ganz said. “Well, that can't amount to a whole lot of time.”

He was nice enough, Sherry said to Nadia and Jonah. He was charming, in a way. Not that she was impressed.

One morning, as she refilled his coffee cup, she pointed out that he was logging right up to her property line, which meant her trees were going to die, too. “A forest is a fragile ecosystem,” she told him. He said, thanks, he didn't need a lecture on forestry.

Was he aware, she said, that he'd displaced a population of red-tailed hawks during nesting season? They were flying around her house screeching like lost souls, she said, and it was breaking her heart.

“I don't want you to have a broken heart, Sherry,” he said.

“I'm sure you don't,” she said, taken aback. He wasn't a young man; she guessed he was close to the same age as her dad, late fifties, early sixties.

“It rains here all the time, Sherry,” Nolan Ganz said. “The trees grow like weeds. A forest regenerates in no time. That's why it's called a renewable resource.”

“I know what renewable resources are,” Sherry said. “And I know what conservation means. I know what respect means, and responsibility.”

He had stared at her and she had stared at him.

Sherry acted out this encounter for Nadia and Jonah, in the kitchen, when the logging had finally ceased for the night and it was quiet.

“There I was,” she said, “in my jeans and plaid shirt, and there he was, in his fancy suede jacket and leather boots.” For Nadia and Jonah she played herself, wagging a finger at her adversary, and she played Nolan Ganz, first mildly diverted and amused and then laughing out loud. Nadia and Jonah watched, mesmerized. Jonah said it was quite a
tableau vivant,
but even then, at that early stage, he'd sounded to Nadia a little dazed and mistrustful.

Sherry brought Nadia a present back from her trip to Paris, a blouse in a sheer, cobwebby fabric that caught at Nadia's fingers. Gingerly she smoothed it over her knees. She and Sherry were sitting on a log on the beach near the ferry dock. Sherry had left her car on the other side and walked over. It was a mild, spring-like day at the end of January. The wind must have been from the west, because the air had that rotten-egg smell from the pulp mill across the water.

Sherry said she wished she could stay longer, but she and Nolan were dining out with friends and Nolan hated to arrive anywhere late. She kept glancing at her watch. “Do you like it?” she said, of the blouse. “I wasn't sure. It's got that dull finish, and with the black, and the little collar, it's kind of sombre. But playful. Do you think?”

“It's great,” Nadia said. “I do like it. Thank you so much.”

Sherry said Nadia should wear it with the cuffs turned back. She leaned close to show her. “In France,” Sherry said, “women have such style. They wear skirts and darling little shoes just to go grocery shopping. Here, everything's two years out of date before it gets to the stores.”

They sat with their feet on the pebble beach and watched the tide coming in. Gulls swooped and landed on pilings near the wharf and took off again.

Sherry held tight to Nadia's hand. She asked if Nadia and Jonah were eating properly. Was Nadia doing okay at school? “I've never had to worry about you, Nadia,” she said. “You've always been such a sweet, good, self-reliant child.”

Nadia would come and stay with her and Nolan, Sherry said; they'd have a fun family time. They'd plan this for the spring, she said, when she and Nolan got back from Cancun, where they were going for a week. Less than a week — five, six days. Sherry didn't especially want to go, not so soon after the European trip. She needed a holiday from holidays. “I should tell you,” she said. “Marni is coming with us. You don't mind, do you? There'll be other times. We'll have the whole summer together, won't we?”

Nadia wanted to say, I am not going to fit into your new life like — a pet dog or cat.

She watched the sun slip behind a mountain, a brief flare of gold low in the sky. A cold breath came off the sea. She saw the ferry glide into the bay, its lights rippling on the water. Sherry shot her arm out and looked at her watch. “I have to go,” she said. “This has been too short, hasn't it?” She was shivering. They both were. They climbed back up to the road.

Nadia knew none of them was the same, after what had happened, but Sherry seemed the most changed. Her eyes glittered, her hair hung in sleek polished-looking curtains on either side of her face. Nervously she touched her earrings, her hair, as if to reassure herself of her presence here, in this place, at this time. Then she smiled and kissed Nadia. She said, “I miss you, baby. I love you.” She walked backwards a few steps, tripped, caught herself, laughed. She turned and walked down to the ferry. Nadia held onto the bag with the blouse in it. Her heart felt pinched and empty and painfully full at the same time.

She flagged down a car that had driven off the ferry. The driver was a neighbour, who said he'd drop her off at her house, no problem. That was how she'd got here in the first place: she'd begged a ride
from a kid at school. Jonah didn't have to know. He didn't have to know anything about this meeting between her and Sherry. By the time she got home it was just after five. She and Jonah went to her grandparents' house for dinner and afterwards watched a video and it was, in that way, much like any other day.

When Nadia stayed with Sherry, she slept in the guest room across the hall from Marni's old room, which was filled with her dolls and stuffed toys, her figure skates and sports ribbons. Sometimes Nadia and Marni were there at the same time, sometimes not.

The sun woke Nadia early. It came through the window and heated the dust in the pale blue carpet and made the room smell like Jonah's toque when he'd worn it out in the rain for days. She lay in bed, listening to traffic on the street outside. Her shoes were on the floor in the closet. Her hairbrush and lipstick were on the dressing table. Yet she felt like a guest in the house. When she woke up, she had to take a moment to orient herself.

She heard someone walk past in the hall. Sherry, talking quietly to Nolan. Then their voices faded away. At last she got up, pulled on jeans and a T-shirt, and went into the hall. She opened a door by mistake, or perhaps not by mistake, but because she wanted to know what was in there. There was a big desk and an armchair with a reading light behind it and a bookcase and two filing cabinets. On the wall over the desk there was a portrait of a woman in a frothy sea-green gown that left her shoulders bare. Her pale gold hair was a mass of carelessly upswept curls. Her hands were loosely clasped in her lap. Her rings sparkled. The portrait was in a frame that was a darker gold than the woman's hair. The drawer pulls on the desk and the oak filing cabinets were gold; sunlight pooled on the wood floor, which had the kind of shiny plastic finish Jonah deplored. The overall effect was costly, yet counterfeit and vaguely hostile, in a useless way, like barbed wire around a duck pond. Nadia pulled the door shut with a small click.

She knew the room was Nolan Ganz's study. She knew she wasn't supposed to go in there. She could irritate her stepfather — if that was what he was, she never knew how to think of him — just by keeping the fridge door open too long, or sitting in what would invariably turn out to be his favourite chair. One minute he'd be joking with Sherry and the next he'd be ranting that he wanted a shower and someone had used up all the hot water, or else someone was talking while he tried to watch the news. He never spoke directly to Nadia, apart from asking her what subjects she liked at school and what she planned to do after she graduated. He advised her to make plans and stick to them, rather than letting things happen holus bolus.

With Sherry and Marni he was almost boisterous, comical. He controlled them with the force of his personality, Nadia thought.

She refused to let herself think of Sherry and Nolan in bed, but sometimes these images came into her mind: her mother and him in each other's arms, the things they did. Anyway, she didn't believe her mother loved Nolan Ganz. How could she? Sherry was young and pretty; he was old and ridiculous, with his narrow shoulders and short muscular neck and big, clumsy hands and staring, dark eyes. Sometimes she watched him. He'd be standing in the kitchen or out in the yard, his arms folded over his chest and Nadia would be aware of his strength. His strength was innate, she thought. He didn't have to work at it. If he got near a radio, it would crackle with electricity. He'd walk out of a room and back in, just to demonstrate this phenomenon. When he played tennis with Marni, he played to win. When he went fishing, he caught the biggest, feistiest salmon in the sea. Everything had to be the best, the rarest and most esteemed. He bragged that his son, Simon, was the most promising young attorney in his firm. James was one of the top realtors in Sydney, Australia. You aimed high, he said, you never fell short. He adored Marni. They were like the only father-daughter team on earth, to listen to him. Nolan sent Marni to private school. He wanted
her to study medicine. Given the chance, he said, he would have been a surgeon, but, tough luck, he was a moron at science.

But then, he said, he hadn't had the advantage of a good education. Poverty was a crucible, he said, an evolutionary pressure cooker. You lived, you died. He was born just outside of Dresden in
. His mother passed away three days after his birth. He never knew his father. Think about it, he said to Marni.

Nadia was sitting across the table from Marni. Sherry kept jumping up to get things from the kitchen. Nolan told her to relax. “Enjoy your dinner,” he said. As soon as she sat down he asked if there was, by any chance, any of that peach chutney left. Sherry said she'd take a look. “I could have done that,” he called after her.

He wiped his mouth on his napkin. He talked about how, in
, an aunt and uncle had sent for him from Canada, where they'd lived since just after the war. They were
ethnic Germans displaced from their little home in Moravia, which he, of course, had never seen. In fact, he'd never entirely believed he was related to them. They were fair-haired and slight, stooped, anxious, while he was dark and, at least back then, sturdy, full of rude good health, as they used to say. His aunt and uncle sent him to school; he quit in grade ten. Mr. Know-It-All. He went to work in the woods with his uncle. He'd hated working in the bush. He'd hated being out in the wind and rain. The rain really pissed him off. He dreamed of dry clothes, clean, warm socks. He was just a kid, a lonely, angry kid. He wanted to do something with his life, but he didn't know what.

He talked. He buttered a roll.

“It's like I told her,” he said. He pointed his knife at Nadia and she straightened in her chair.

“Nadia,” he said. “It's like I told Nadia. Don't put off making plans. Get your ducks in a row, I said. I've told you the same thing, Marni, haven't I?”

“I don't know,” Marni said. “Get your ducks in a row? Is that what you said?” She laughed. She propped her chin on her hand. Her eyes flickered in Nadia's direction. She had her father's dark, watchful eyes. She'd learned to keep her thoughts to herself, Nadia could tell. In this house, where people played real-life musical chairs and someone was always getting shunted out of the game, it was good to hold back, Nadia thought. It was good to have that reserve. She put a finger lightly, absently, to her lips, took it away.

“If you really want to know,” Sherry said, “I'll tell you. Eleanor was out sailing and the boom caught the back of her head. Perhaps she lost consciousness or was simply knocked off balance and somehow slipped into the water.”

Eleanor was a good sailor, Sherry said. She knew the sea. Perhaps she'd let her thoughts stray; a minor lapse, yet it had proved catastrophic. Nolan dived in after her, of course. It was dusk; a marine fog was rolling in, erasing landmarks, anything he might have used to orient himself. He stayed in the water, searching, but he started to go hypothermic and had to give up. Eleanor wasn't found for weeks, and then Nolan had to identify the body. There he was, with two young sons who'd lost their mother and their stepmother. He blamed himself, Sherry said. He had a kind of breakdown. Maurice flew out from Toronto to look after the boys. He took care of everything, Sherry said, and Nolan still said he could never repay him.

“At first, to be honest, I thought Maurice hated me,” Sherry said. “I thought he wanted to protect Nolan from me. Or to protect Nolan from his own romantic nature or something. Maurice is hard to read. He can be, if he wants, and I think he does. I think he likes being enigmatic. Nolan says so.”

In a way, Sherry said, what Nolan and Maurice gave each other was continuity, a sense of family. Maurice was an uncle to Nolan's sons, after all, and family mattered to Nolan. “I know Nolan can
be brusque, but at heart he's very kind, very tender.” Sherry paused, as if searching for words sufficient to the challenge of describing Nolan Ganz.

She was polishing spoons on a tea towel and handing them to Nadia, who placed them on the table beside the cereal bowls. Sherry had taken some pink and yellow roses out of a vase in the dining room, cut off the stems, and put them in a shallow bowl of water on the breakfast table. She stood back and studied the effect. “It's all new and strange, isn't it?” she said. “To me, it is. You come into someone's life and it's like catching the second act of a play. You pick it up as you go along. Finally, it starts to make sense to you. You hope it does, anyway.”

Nadia was thinking of the third act of this hypothetical play. Could Sherry see that far ahead, she wondered? And if she could, would it still make sense to her?

BOOK: Home Schooling
8.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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