Authors: Sarah Mian
~ A Novel ~
For my mother.
ADVANCE PRAISE FOR When the Saints
HE RHUBARB LEAVES HAVE GROWN UP TO THE FIRST-
floor windows. From the bottom of the driveway, I spy a juice pitcher and some plastic cups sitting on a table on the porch. I strain my ears for voices, but all I’m picking up is the buzz of insects and power lines.
When I get closer, I see cobwebs binding the table to the railing and a grey feather sticking out of the jug. A wool sweater hanging over the back of a chair doesn’t stir with the breeze. I squint up at the windows and fight the urge to bolt, pushing my fists into the back pockets of my jeans to anchor myself. A crow starts a staring contest from the roof and I look away first, glancing around at all the beer cans scattered in the grass, wondering what debris was left behind and what’s been brought since by kids using the house as a party place.
It’s hard to focus with those beady eyes boring into my forehead, so I give up and walk around the side yard to the garage. Thorn bushes catch the hem of my jacket on the slight incline
and it takes a few good kicks on the door before I can squeeze inside. Grandpa’s shotguns are rusted out and there’s a lonesome smell of oil over everything. The dirt floor next to the deep-freeze Daddy used to throw chunks of deer meat into is stained black from years of spilled blood. The wall hook is empty. All the keys are gone, even the one for the disassembled tractor.
Something slides past my foot and vanishes behind a metal jerry can. I push the can aside with my boot, squat down and spy a garter snake coiled back beneath the shelves full of dusty tools. It darts past me and slips outside, and as I’m tracing its path through the weeds I notice the long grass is flattened near the kitchen entrance of the house. As soon as I start wading down there, the crow alights on the awning to keep me in its sights.
I get a familiar jolt as I approach the small round window in the kitchen door. Back in the day, this was the porthole to whatever shitstorm was in swing if Daddy was home. If it was getting dark and my stomach was growling, I used to drag over a sawhorse to stand on and press my face to the glass. Sometimes I could make out a figure slumped over in a chair or catch the shadow of a bottle tipping back. Once, Daddy surprised the hell out of me with his eyeballs right up to mine. I fell backward onto the grass, crawled through the bushes and from a safe distance watched him lurch out the door and trip over the sawhorse, hollering that I was dead meat. While he lay there passed out in the moonlight, I shivered in the trees for an hour until my older brother came home. I watched Bird poke Daddy with a long stick and when Daddy didn’t twitch, I sprinted out from my hiding spot. Bird pushed me into the house and locked the door behind
us. We stood at the window watching Daddy’s belly rising and falling. “Stupid shithead,” Bird said. “He won’t even remember how he got there.” He turned around, snatched Daddy’s glass off the table, and I watched the few amber rivulets that missed his mouth go trickling down his neck.
Now I only have to stand on tiptoes to peer inside, but all I can make out are blurry shapes. I try the knob and it’s unlocked, so I slowly walk in.
The walls and countertops are scarred with cigarette burns. There are butts on the floor, glasses of mouldy liquid and a shrivelled mouse on a plate. It’s like someone hosted the tea party from hell.
I hold my nose and search the room for something familiar. After a few seconds, I spy the rooster clock, the one we got free from an offer on the back of a cereal box. It used to “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” until it startled Daddy one day and he bashed it with his fist. After that, it would only whisper “Cock” every hour followed by a garbled noise like it was being choked. I take it down off the wall, wipe off the grime and wind the little pin in the back, but that bird’s finally out of its misery. I carefully hang it back in its place and wander to the next room.
My boots on the floorboards set off a chain reaction of groans and rattles throughout the whole house. In the murky green light, everything looks as if it’s under water. The hallway is a jungle of coat hangers and unravelled cassette tapes, piles of fallen plaster and broken Christmas-tree ornaments. Someone booby-trapped the main staircase by nailing a flannel sheet over a missing tread.
Upstairs, the floor’s given way in spots. I find where a beam
shows through and walk the length of it into the master bedroom. Two white cats are lying on a bare matress. They stare at me, wide-eyed. In the closet, Ma’s yellow dress was a banquet for moths. The buttons she kept in the Mason jar on her bureau are stuck together. There are water stains on the walls, wings flapping in the attic. Even the clouds are creaking outside.
I pick a sturdy spot and slowly rotate, taking it all in. Before I can even begin to wrap my mind around this mess, I hear a car door slam. I make my way back down the stairs and peer out a window. The RCMP officer I spoke to earlier is parked down on the road and coming up on foot. I open the front door and quickly undo the top few buttons of my blouse. I’ll need a place to sleep, and it sure as hell won’t be in this house.
“Had to see for myself,” I say once he’s in earshot.
He takes his hat off. “Sorry, I don’t have any more information for you.”
He’s lying. I can tell by how fast he drops his eyes. I walk down off the porch and ask, “You know if anyone in town needs a waitress?”
He stares hard at my red boots, tries not to let his eyes slide up my legs. I see he’s wearing a wedding ring. A voice cuts through the static on his belt radio and he flicks the volume down with his thumb. “Just head to the tavern. West knows everything anybody knows. You’ll get all your answers in one place.”
“He’s been running the Four Horses since Clutch passed.”
“He got a girlfriend?”
“Listen, Tabatha.” The cop fidgets and puts his hat back on. “Things have been quiet around here.”
“You going to give me a ride or not?”
I hear a rustle of feathers and look up to see a whole flock of crows now perched on the rusty telephone wire. They seem to be waiting for a signal. I raise my arm and give them the middle finger, but that wasn’t it.
HE MAIN DRAG WAS NEVER A WELCOME PLACE FOR
Saints. My stomach tightens as we pass the convenience store I used to steal from right out of the register, and next to it the barbershop with the dirty candy-striped pole Bird once licked on a dare.
Up ahead, I see the big town history mural painted on the stone wall. There’s a trick to it where, if you stand in a certain spot, you become another face in the crowd of people cheering for the men come home from war. As we pass it, I see that all the townswomen have been defiled by spray paint. They’ve all got big tits and tongues hanging out, ready to jump any soldier who still has his legs.
The cop lets me out at the stop sign and drives off without a word. I need to clear my head, so I duck down an alley into the Doyle Street Country Club. That’s the name the cops gave to the back lot where kids started congregating to pass around cheap bottles of Great White. By the look of all the empties, the club’s still swinging, though the new house beverage is something called Dory 72. The label has a cross-eyed cartoon fisherman with the slogan
Get It in Your Gills.
I trail my finger along the wavy green line that the big flood stained along the back walls of the buildings, remembering how bits of algae and garbage were stuck to everyone’s houses and cars. The day after the storm, my father paddled our family down Main Street in a canoe, pointing out floating baby doll heads and whisky jugs, hooking in the stuff Ma wanted with a ski pole. The cemetery was submerged except for the tallest crosses, and later we heard that some of the bodies went for a ride. One of them floated face up beneath Grandma Jean’s kitchen window. She was sure it was Jim Weir, whose funeral she’d been at two weeks before. When she got sick of looking at him, she paid some kids to tether him to their rubber dinghy and tow him down to the station.
I light a cigarette and smoke it down to my fingers while I search for my old graffiti. Someone carved
I fucked your mother last night
into the dumpster, and beneath it someone else scrawled
You wish, Dad.
I wish a few of these kids were hanging around so I could tell them about some of our old hijinks. Like the time some church nuts marched down here preaching the light of the Lord, handing out pamphlets and T-shirts that said, JESUS LISTENS. We ripped the sleeves off the shirts, stole some permanent markers from the pharmacy and added TO METALLICA in thunderbolt letters. Then we sat on the church steps Sunday morning and gave them back to all the people walking in.
I crush out my smoke, crack my neck a few times. Then I pop a piece of gum in my mouth and head back through the alley. I start up the main drag, but I only get as far as the beauty parlour
before my stomach seizes up again. One time, my mother and I were walking hand in hand and she stopped short right in front of this door. She had a green and yellow bruise on that day and it was almost pretty, like a fireworks display across one cheek. She said, “I’m going to get me a job and get us out of here.” She grabbed my hand, burst through the door and said, “You need workers? I’ll do anything that needs doing. I can work sixteen hours a day for the price of eight.” And without even looking up from putting perm rods in some old lady’s hair, the woman who ran the place, Beula Dean, said to no one in particular, “I’d sooner hire that stray dog that hangs around the library with one eye hanging out of its head.”
It was moments like those that forced me to be who I am. If ever I drifted just an inch from being a Saint, something always snapped me right back in my place. The thought of it makes me want to duck into the beauty parlour right now, slice Beula Dean’s throat with a razor blade and have a skating party in her blood. But the only person inside is a bored-looking black lady sitting behind the counter reading
magazine. She looks up and beckons for me to come in, but I keep moving.
The funeral parlour is boarded up and moved around the corner into what used to be the bowling alley. I don’t see any reason why I can’t just walk in and ask if anyone in my family cashed in their chips. There’s a loud bell that jangles when the door opens and organ music playing on a little boom box behind the desk. I nose around, touching all the display coffins and urns, until a young man with big glasses and hair all combed over to one side emerges from the backroom.
“Hi there. I’m Tabby Saint. I’m curious if you might have buried anybody from my family in the last eleven or so years. I’m just back in town and haven’t exactly kept in touch.”
“Saint?” The way he looks at me, so spooked, I figure he’s going to tell me they all burned up in a fire or something. “We haven’t provided any services for Saints.”
“Is that because no one died or because they’d sooner dig a hole in the woods than pay your fees?”
He can’t seem to pry open his jaw.
“No offence,” I add. “I can see them doing that.”
“One moment.” He opens a door and goes down some stairs. When he comes back, he clears his throat and says, “My father says no Saints have passed on since Jack Saint in 1971.”
“People always said we were hard targets. Speaking of which, what’d you do with all those pins and balls when you moved in?”
“We boxed them up and put them out in the parking lot. Some kids carted them off.”
I imagine my brothers and sister laying down planks of plywood and setting up their own little bowling alley in the front yard, charging other kids lane fees.