Ashes

by Nancy Jo Cullen

Nancy Jo Cullen is the 4th recipient of the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Grant for Emerging Gay Writer. Her short story collection, The 14th Week in Ordinary Time was shortlisted for the 2010-2011 Metcalf Rooke Award. She is the author of three collections of poetry with Calgary’s Frontenac House Press. She has been short-listed for the Gerald Lampert Award, the Writers Guild of Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson Award and the W.O. Mitchell Calgary Book Prize.

In 1976, when I was twelve years old, and my father was still desperate to please my mom, we moved into a new house on Wallace Road. Our part of town was called The Mission, named by Father Pandosy, an Oblate priest who established the first white settlement in the Okanagan Valley in 1859. Wallace Road was lined with identical three-bedroom, bi-level homes. Each house had a dining room which led to an elevated sundeck that served dual purpose as a carport, under which my father parked his 1972 Chevy Nomad station wagon. Our car was beige and embarrassing.

We didn’t live on the kind of street where people are fond of their neighbours and share summer cookouts and winter hockey tournaments. For instance, we didn’t talk to the German family who ate the rabbits they kept in the backyard, and we barely smiled at—although we weren’t openly hostile toward—the RCMP constable who lived next door.

“What a racket,” my mother said at breakfast shortly after we moved in. “I heard them going half the night. I’m telling you, Eddie, he hit her. More than once.”

“Do you want me to go talk to him?” Dad asked.

“For God’s sake, no!” Mom pressed her forehead into her fingers. “The man has a gun!”

Dad gave Mom a long-suffering look, “Elaine, I don’t know why you told me this story.”

“Because, Ed, I have a goddamn headache. And you could sleep through the second coming of Christ.”

After we had been in the house for three years, my older brother escaped my parents’ distaste for one another by finding work on an oilrig near Slave Lake. Six months later, he returned as the protégé of a fanatical Pentecostal minister who had chosen him a sixteen-year old bride. He was eighteen years old. David didn’t even meet his bride until two weeks before the nuptials, to which none of us were invited. One year later, in the spring of 1980, David and his pregnant wife, Charity, moved to a Christian commune near Lumby.

“I give up on the men in this family,” my mother said. She lit a smoke and poured a shot of Kaluha into her coffee. “What on earth is he thinking?”

I shrugged. My brother had never been strong on thinking. David failed grade two, and shortly after our move to Wallace Road he was tagging along with Clinton Pelletier, a deranged product of the foster care system who was a year older than David and brimming with venom.

Clint liked to grab me and stick his tongue in my mouth or push me down on to the floor and grind his crotch into mine, saying, “How do you like that, baby? You want some more?” David would turn into a mute idiot and just stand there watching. The guy had no will. I knew that, but my mother had her own way of seeing things.


My mother was frantically trying to come up with some alternative names for Grandma, like we’d actually venture out to the sticks to see David and Charity who wouldn’t eat at the same table with us because they believed we were going to hell. “How about Ellie?” she asked during the six o’clock news. We were watching the channel from Spokane, waiting to hear, along with the rest of the Pacific Northwest, what was going on with Mount St. Helen’s.

“Crazy old bastard,” my father said. Ever since the Governor of Washington declared a state of emergency, my dad obsessed over the growing activity around the volcano. And he was fixated on Harry Truman, the old man who refused to leave the mountain.

“Ed! Are you even listening to me?”

“What’s that?” he asked.

Mom shook her head. “I might just as well be talking to a wall.”

“Make your folks a couple of bourbon-and-cokes, would you, Jeannie?” My dad had recently purchased a twenty-sixer of bourbon in honour of old Mr. Truman, who wasn’t just famous for refusing to leave the volcano, but also for his love of bourbon and cats.

“Not for me.” My mother’s lips were a thin line. “Lisa and I are going to ceramics.” There was one neighbour we liked, a nurse named Lisa. On Monday nights, she and Mom went to a basement on Raymer Road and painted mother-of-pearl Madonnas and speckled frogs with open mouths to hold pot scrubbers. On Mondays, Lisa’s son slept at his dad’s apartment, so after their ceramics class Mom and Lisa would sit in Lisa’s living room smoking cigarettes and drinking five-dollar bottles of wine. On Tuesday mornings, my dad and I tiptoed around the kitchen and made our way quickly out of the house.

“Well then,” Dad winked at Mom, “make mine a double.” He was a well-liked guy, my dad. He made a point of sounding happy, which is probably what made him a successful salesman. For the past two years, he’d been selling time on the local radio station, and he’d found his niche among flamboyant radio personalities, with their laissez-faire approach to boozing and extra-marital sex. Not that my dad was a philanderer, but it was easy enough for him to ignore the sexual revolution with all the good drinking that could be done among those fellows.

My mother snorted and left the room. Dad, who was prone on the couch, turned back toward the television. “Now that’s what I call love.” He raised himself up on his elbows. “He says he’d die if he weren’t on that mountain. His wife is buried there. Now who wouldn’t want to feel like that about someone?”

Sometimes my dad went on about the weirdest things. “Do you really want a double?” I asked.

“May as well. Your mother’s not home anyway.”

When I brought him the drink, he said, “How about we go for a lesson after the news?” A few weeks earlier, on April 16, I qualified for my learners and my dad was teaching me how to drive.


Dad relaxed into the passenger seat and popped the cap off his beer bottle with a Bic lighter. “Do up your seatbelt,” he said, although he made no move to fasten his own. I drove carefully out toward the east side of town through the winding hills populated by apple orchards and vineyards. “Atta girl.” My dad had a habit of offering commentary when none was necessary.

The sun was close to setting; tall spruce trees cast long shadows across the windshield. The world was lit in a pink glow, making the trees, grass and gravel shoulders seem antique. “It wouldn’t be a bad idea to turn on the headlights,” he said, “just so they know you’re coming, not going. I don’t think your mother would appreciate a car accident on her ceramics night.”

It didn’t seem like a statement that required a response, and I was focused on the Bronco heading toward us on the narrow road. “What d’ya say, Jean? Is ceramics class worth all the planning?”

“I don’t know.”

I had been to one ceramics class with my mom and Lisa, but it was embarrassing. The ladies sat around painting planters and talking about how their kids each seemed to have a marvelous talent. Finally, my mother piped up, sounding so chipper you would have thought she was doing a laundry detergent commercial, “Well, I’m perfectly happy with my thoroughly average daughter. Aren’t I, Jeannie?”

“I guess so,” I had said. Mom couldn’t believe it when I said I didn’t want to go back the next week.

“Well, your mother remains a mystery to me. Hang a right here.” He tapped on his window. “Of course, mystery is what keeps a marriage fresh.” He stifled a small burp. “Let’s get in some parking practice before we lose the light.”

We were on a street of front driveways that safely stored cars for the night; only one turquoise sedan remained on the road in front of a faded yellow and white, ranch-style house. “Just pull up beside it and park.”

When I stopped the car, he took the last swig of his beer and stepped out of the car. “Hang on.” He took several giant steps away from the car then set his beer bottle down on the shoulder. He placed a big rock beside the bottle then ran back to the car. For a second I saw what kind of kid my dad had been.

When he climbed back into the car he was old again. He grabbed another beer from under the seat and popped the cap. “Now, I’m going to get you to do like you’re parallel parking, only instead of another car, it’s a beer bottle.”

“It’s kind of hard to see in this light.”

“Welcome to my world, sweetheart.” He swallowed the beer in large gulps. “What you really want to do is to get a feel for backing into a spot. And you have to move slowly. Don’t let other cars get you all excited. Parallel parking is an art. It demands assurance and attention, like most things worth doing.

“Now, when you pull up beside the car you’re parking behind, you want to give it a little space. If you get too close there’s bound to be a collision, if you’re too far away, you’re just going to lose the whole damn thing. You know what I mean?”

I nodded.

“So you line up your steering wheel with the car beside you—just pull up a little. And you want to be about three feet away.”

I aligned the car.

“Good. Now back up. Slowly. And crank it.”

I started to turn the wheel.

“But not too soon. Wait until you can see her bumper through the passenger window. And then you want to get about a forty-five degree angle to work your way in. She’s all about how you approach her. Nice and easy does it.”

I worked my way into the imaginary space cut off by the empty bottle of Pilsner. I straightened the wheels and backed into the curb, which was also imaginary—the properties on the east side were separated from the road by gravel and shallow ditches. I heard glass crackling under tires and stopped the car. Dad scratched his ear. “Well, that can’t be good.”

He stepped out to assess the damage. “Pull forward,” he called. I inched the car ahead. Through the rearview mirror I saw him bend over and then stand up again and kick at the gravel, sending the pieces of brown glass into the ditch. Then he turned the bottle he was drinking from upside down, letting the last few sips dribble onto the road. He dropped the empty bottle into the ditch, opened the door and slid back into his seat. “It doesn’t look like there’s any damage to the tire but let’s get a move on; I don’t suppose the folks around here are going to appreciate us littering on their turf.”

I drove back down toward the centre of town while Dad nursed his third beer. He didn’t like to bring mixed drinks into the car; they spilled too easily. I cranked up the radio but he didn’t complain. I guess he had nothing to say. The sun had set and the sky was darkening; I saw my father’s face reflected in the glass. I was trying to picture him as a teenager, combing Brylcreem through his hair and chasing after my mom. It was kind of creepy, actually, to think of my parents as young teenyboppers, before she was cranky and he was a salesman.

“He’s got twelve cats,” Dad said.

“What?”

“Old Harry Truman. He’s got twelve cats. How do you get twelve cats off a mountain like that?”

“You could probably use cages.”

“Well sure. But cats are funny. They don’t like change.”

“It’s better than dying.”

“No one knows for sure what’s going to happen on that mountain. Harry’s guess is as good as anybody’s. Turn left at Lakeshore.” He emptied the beer bottle and let it drop to the floor. “He’s quite the guy.”

“Do you remember our old cat?” he asked.

“Funny you should ask,” I said.

“How so?”

“I just did a sketch of her in art class.” I didn’t really remember much about her, except her name and that she was black with a white belly. I drew Sugar as I imagined she’d be now, old and sleeping on the end of my bed. A cat’s a nice thing to have around; they’re quiet and warm and never pretend to be anything but what they are.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said.

I drove us home, past the elementary school, past the grazing cows, hung a right and pulled into the carport. The German’s squeaky white dog threw himself against their front window, yapping away. “Somebody should put that dog out of its misery,” Dad muttered as we made our way to the front door.

“I’m going to bed,” I told him.

“Isn’t it early?”

“I’m tired. And I have to finish reading Macbeth for tomorrow.”

“Now Macbeth is a guy who could’ve learned a thing or two about loyalty.” We both made our way into the kitchen, Dad to make another bourbon and coke, me to grab a stack of crackers and a glass of milk to take to my room. “Well, I’ll be on the deck,” he said. I watched him walk onto the deck in his shirtsleeves with a cigarette burning in one hand and a drink in the other. He pushed a lawn chair against the outside wall of the house and sat down. He didn’t turn on a light; he just sat in the dark, knocking the ice around in his glass. When I grabbed a glass of water a few hours later, he was still on the deck in the dark with a drink in his hand, watching Lisa’s house.

The next morning Dad barely spoke a word as we made our way out of the house. I chalked it up to a hangover, but in the evening he continued to be silent; he ate dinner, he watched the news for the reports about Mount St. Helens, he drank another bourbon and coke, or three, but the only time he spoke was to thank my mother for the tuna casserole. Mom, on the other hand, chatted endlessly about nothing. His silence perked her right up. At dinner she asked me about my day at school. She clucked her tongue over the news and said, “Can you imagine? An active volcano this far north?” She didn’t wait for either of us to answer before she launched into a commentary about that crazy old man with a death wish and how it was going to end up costing good money to get him out just you wait and see. Dad stood up and left the room, so she suggested we go to Orchard Park Mall to get new summer clothes on the weekend.

My father stayed quiet for the rest of the week. Mom responded with uncharacteristic chattiness—like they had switched bodies in some kind of supernatural mishap. I stuck to my room, which neither of them seemed to notice. And each night, after the evening news and the reports about the mountain, Dad would knock on my door with a box of beer under his arm and we would head out for a driving lesson. He would crack the first beer as we began and make his way through half the case during a lesson, carrying on conversation like there was nothing unusual going on except the geological surprise of Mount Saint Helen’s waking up.

When we returned home, Mom would be sitting on the front steps with Lisa, smoking and laughing. My dad would snort and head right to the basement, and my mom and Lisa would be all over me, commenting so loudly that I was forced to hurry inside.

They liked to exclaim, “Oooh, there’s a sexy young driver!”

Or, “There’s no controlling her once she’s driving, Eddie!” Like he ever tried to control me. I can’t even begin to guess why they thought they were funny.

On Saturday, my dad and I made a long drive through the valley. Mount St. Helen’s had stopped spewing steam and smoke and Dad was pretty dejected about the whole thing. “Well, it’s good for Harry, but I was hoping for more of a show. How about we go to Vernon for lunch? I could stand a drink.” He pulled a cigarette out of his pocket. “Maybe she decided to settle down.”

“Who?”

“The volcano. Maybe she’s calming down for the old man.”

“Oh,” I said. Not that he was making any sense.

“I love this time of year.” He unrolled the window to release the smoke. “Before everything heats up.”

“Whatever happened to Sugar?” I asked.

“Who?”

“Our cat.”

“Your mother was allergic.”

“She was?”

“Well, she had no time for cats. She said she had her hands full with you and your brother.”

“I thought Sugar ran away. Or died.”

“Probably.” He took a long drag on his cigarette and then let the smoke out in a sigh. “I loved that little bugger.”

“What happened to her?”

“Oh, I don’t know, honey.” He shifted in his seat, uncomfortable I guess. “Your mother took her for a drive.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you know, desperate times take desperate measures.”

“We were desperate?”

“Your mother was.”

“Jesus, Dad.”

“No one’s happy if Mommy’s not happy.”

“Well that explains a lot.”

He looked at me, surprised, and then began to sing, “I’ll be with you in apple blossom time. I’ll be with you to change your name to mine. One day in May I’ll come to say happy surprise that the sun shines on today.”

So Mom got rid of our cat. I wanted to ask how but Dad was tripping out to old music and generally weirder than usual, and the drive to Vernon is scary and twisty, so I turned my attention to the road and left him to his song and the blooming fruit trees.

When we got home, Mom was gone. She’d left a package of wieners and a can of beans on the counter. “Jesus. Bloody wieners and beans?”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m going out to meet up with Tina and Shelley anyway.” We had plans to drop in on a party of grade twelvers that Tina’s brother had told her about.

“I want you in by 11:30.” He seemed mad.

“Okay.”

“I’m going out for a drink.”

When I left at seven, neither of my parents was home. I poured a third of my dad’s bourbon and a third of his vodka into a jar, topped it off with coke and headed out to meet the girls. When I got home at 12:15, the house was still empty. Not that I cared; I was drunk enough to want to get right into bed. This gorgeous guy named Paolo had flirted with me all night. I know he wanted me because he gave me one of his Colt cigars. I’d never heard of a guy named Paolo before; he was from the west side but came with his cousin Rick who went to my school and who was nothing to shake a stick at, either. Anyway, my parents didn’t know I broke curfew and I fell asleep with a smile on my face.

I woke a few hours later to my mother yelling, “Don’t be a fucking idiot Ed!” I rolled onto my back and tried to see my ceiling through the dark. I could hear my dad crying.

I wished I’d gotten drunker at the party.

There was some more muffled talking and crying and then I heard my mom again, “There’s nothing you can do. I love her.”

I hated it when they fought over me.

“And I was happy for you,” my dad’s voice rose sharply, “because you finally found a friend.”

It took a few minutes for that to sink in. My mom was in love with Lisa? And then my dad was crying like a baby again.

“Are you ready?” Lisa must have come in through the back.

“Go to hell!” he cried. “The both of you.” Then I heard the back door close and my dad pacing the kitchen, clapping his hands, I think. I wasn’t going to touch that with a ten-foot pole so I turned my face toward the wall and willed sleep to come through my dad’s blubbering and the totally embarrassing idea of my mom making out with Lisa. Knowing my mom, she was going to make a spectacle of it, turn it into some kind of show for the cop and the Germans, and the next thing you know it would be all over the school.

I guess I fell asleep around the time the sun was coming up, because when I opened my eyes it was 12:30 in the afternoon. My dad way lying on the couch, watching the television. “Old Harry’s dead,” he told me.

“What?”

“The mountain blew to smithereens. There’s no way he made it out. Not him, not the cats.”

“Oh.”

“And your mother moved out.”

“I heard.”

“Well I guess that saves me trying to explain it.”

“I guess so.”

“Not that I understand it.” He squeezed his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “Not that I understand it at all.”

“Can you drive me to Tina’s?”

I probably should have stayed home with my dad but I felt sick to my stomach from the liquor, or the cigar, or my mom, and if I stayed in that house I think I would have screamed my head off. That night I figured it would be best if I slept at Tina’s, I don’t know, in case they wanted to fight it out a little more. It was too weird to sleep at our place.

Monday morning I woke to a thin dusting of ash over cars and a hazy sky. Our biology teacher Miss Franklin was breathless with excitement over the size of the blast as we mapped the progress of destruction. How everyone could see the explosion coming but how no one really guessed it would be so huge.

After school, I slowly made my way home, not sure what I’d find, but there was my dad sitting in Mom’s favourite chair with a grey tabby kitten in his lap. “I’ve named her Truman,” he said as he passed the kitten to me.

“She’s cute.”

“Well,” he stood up, “I need a drink. There’s some sweet and sour chicken balls in the oven, if you’re hungry.”

“Thanks.” I stuck my face into the cat’s baby sweetness.

“I’m sorry.” He put his hand on the top of my head.

I kept my face buried in Truman’s back like I didn’t hear him.

 


Nancy Jo Cullen is the 4th recipient of the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Grant for Emerging Gay Writer. Her short story collection, The 14th Week in Ordinary Time was shortlisted for the 2010-2011 Metcalf Rooke Award. She is the author of three collections of poetry with Calgary’s Frontenac House Press. She has been short-listed for the Gerald Lampert Award, the Writers Guild of Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson Award and the W.O. Mitchell Calgary Book Prize.

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