Even Still

by Paul Carlucci

Paul Carlucci is the author of The Secret Life of Fission, which won the 2013 Danuta Gleed Literary Award. House of Anansi is publishing a second collection in 2016. Paul’s stories have been individually published and are forthcoming in Riddle Fence, subTerrain, Little Fiction, Descant, The Fiddlehead, Carousel, and others.

Roger

They arrive forty-five minutes late in a white pick-up with the word hybrid stenciled across the door in swooping blue letters. Peering through the blinds of his front window, Roger already imagines their justification for the vehicle. He imagines the words coming not from Del but from Cassie, who will breathlessly explain the truck’s quintessential British Columbian qualities: its rugged, off-road posture, perfect for bouncing up steep alpine pitches, for accessing remote cabins, hiking trails, cliff-side picnic tables—but not to worry, because this model is manufactured with the global future top of mind, and its hybrid engine is just the tip of the environmentally conscious but tragically evaporating iceberg.

Coastal types, Roger thinks, pushing his round-rim glasses up the bridge of his nose and clearing his throat. Coastal types are so full of shit and dietary supplements.

Nancy comes pattering out of the kitchen and she’s opening the front door before the Willis-Mayburrys even have time to walk up the gravel driveway, their arms loaded with wine. Roger tries hard to follow her cheery lead, even though he knows it’s mostly a put-on. He smooths a few strands of black and grey hair dangling from a sparse patch in the middle of his forehead. He’s wearing a blue and red striped tie and he digs his fingers into the knot, fumbles with it a moment, straightens it out and runs his dry palm down his chest. A coil of cigarette ash is caught in a tuft of arm hair. He flicks it away, takes a deep, gurgling breath, and presents himself at the door with a bloodless smile.

He endures twenty minutes of bumbling introductions and awkward body contact, and then he’s outside leaning over the grill, four steaks dripping into a burst of gas-fuelled fire, a cigarette fuming in the ashtray beside him, water beading on the bottleneck of his favourite light beer. Del is behind him, coughing lightly into his itty fist, and Roger knows when he turns around the man will be reclined in a lawn chair, his hairless legs crossed effeminately, a glass of red wine in his hand (fancy stuff they order straight from the Okanagan), and a light breeze blowing through his disheveled hair.

What, Roger wonders, was William thinking when he sat at this man’s dinner table? And what was he thinking when he had intercourse with this man’s daughter?

“Trailer looks super, Rog.” Del rubs his thumb along his stubbled chin. “Looks really comfortable. Really homey, you know. Which is what you want in a home. I mean, we both said so soon as we pulled in the driveway.”

Roger nods ever so slightly. “It’s a doublewide. Easy to renovate when you’ve got the space.” He swallows his beer and puffs his cigarette. He closes the barbeque lid and sits in the chair next to Del. A dog barks from a neighbouring lot. Roger looks out on his patchy backyard, golf tees littered around the patio stones, scattered finishing nails and sawdust caught in the bunchgrass, a battered red punching bag hanging from the branch of a tree, and he realizes he’d be marginally happier if Cassie were out here instead of Del. A car door slams and a baby shrieks through an open window. Roger squishes his smoke into a crack between patio stones and blows twin streams through his nostrils.

At least Cassie has balls. Del hasn’t worked in something like twenty years. And he’s not embarrassed about it either. He volunteers the information, as if playing housewife is something to be envied. And then he always mentions his writing. Always mentions his book. He was raising their daughter—raising Keisha—and then he was writing a book, and that was what Del had fallen from his mother’s cunt to do. But when you think about it, Del never actually finished either of those two things. And now he never will. Nor is he likely to finish anything else he starts, unless of course he intends to wipe his bathroom mirror. Because Del isn’t a closer. Not like his wife.

“So,” Del says, and he pauses to sip his wine, swish it over his tongue. “So I think I’ll be returning to teaching soon, eh?”

Roger stands up and checks on the steaks. “That right?” He keeps his back to Del. “Probably about time, eh?”

“Yep. Oh yeah. That’s what we think too. It’s been a year, you know? At some point, you’ve just got to move on. You’ve got to put your grief behind you and just push on with your life.”

Even though he’s been retired for five years, Roger still likes to think he’s maintained a sharp, analytical mind. He figures it’s a good way to keep his brain limbre, to ward off Alzheimer’s or whatever else might be lurking in the end zone of his senior years. But more than that, it’s a habit. A good police officer has to think in terms of cause and effect, has to take a hard look at the past to better understand the present. And Roger likes to think he was more than a good police officer. Roger likes to think he was grade-A.

“There was the girl leaning against his kitchen counter, screaming her life story with her mouth shut, and the facts were clear …”

He’d taken one look at Keisha the first time William brought her home from Vancouver, and he could tell right away she was into dope. Nothing too hard, but she was obviously a pothead, her face all full of piercings and that ugly splash of grey and black tattoo ink oozing out of her sweater sleeves. Immediately, he guessed at her home life. Not the details, of course. He couldn’t have imagined her mother would be a budding restaurant maven or that her father had a doctorate in African history. He couldn’t have known anything so specific without sneaking directly inside the Willis-Mayburry family home in Whistler, rifling the drawers and cupboards, investigating the bedside tables. But specificity is just an ideal. He doesn’t need it to judge. Never has. There was the girl leaning against his kitchen counter, screaming her life story with her mouth shut, and the facts were clear: Keisha had been brought up in an atmosphere of modern, slacker family values—and at least one of her parents was probably a criminal.

Two years later, after the darkest, most sleepless night of his life, after he and Nancy had driven all the way from 100 Mile House to Vancouver in shocked and leaden silence, Roger saw Del squatting in the hallway outside the door to the morgue. He was wearing sandals and a cardigan over a black T-shirt and cargo shorts. Tears and snot streamed down his face as he sobbed openly in the harsh fluorescent lights. Roger knew right away who he was looking at. If there was blame to be laid—and of course there was, and still is—then it would best be laid at the feet of the Willis-Mayburrys, and in particular the soft, mushy, and ultimately toxic personage of the father.

“Yeah,” Roger says, flipping the steaks and savouring the gust of spice-laden smoke billowing round his head. “Yeah, I suppose that sounds about right, Del. I suppose it does. But so are you saying that you don’t follow the news coming out of there anymore? Islam? Al-Qaeda? Sharia law? I mean, I thought that part of the world was your specialty. I thought you were writing a book about the place, right? Like you’re always saying?”

Del drains his wine and stares at the grape sediment clinging to the bottom of the glass. “Oh, I do. I mean, yeah, of course I do. And I still am. Writing a book. I still am. But it’s a big continent, you know? There are a lot of different things happening and when you really look at it, well, like, you kind of see that life there isn’t all that different from life here. I mean, Roger, basically it’s exactly the same.” Del sips from his empty wine glass and laughs. “I mean, Rog, it’s not all bullet belts and kidnappings, you know?”

“Except,” Roger says quietly, staring at the punching bag drifting in small, tight circles above the tattered lawn, “it is for some people, right? We know that much, don’t we? The four of us?”

Roger’s beer is empty. It’s his fourth of the evening, because he already drank three to calm his nerves when the Willis-Mayburrys were twenty-five minutes late. There’s a fifth in his near future. And then a sixth. And more, because Roger is going to have to drink a lot tonight. It’s inevitable. He’ll have to drink enough beer to drown his raw nerves, to hose them in gallons of 4.5 per cent alcohol, lest he find himself shouting and sweating and poised to do violence, something like the last time the Willis-Mayburrys came to 100 Mile House. But there’s a danger zone to remember. He knows that much from experience. Roger will have to be careful, because if he drinks too much, if he spends the whole evening leaving bottles around the trailer and throughout the yard, then those self-same nerves will come scudding to the surface, and they’ll be that much rawer for the insult of having been submerged.

It’s not clear if Del has heard him, because the man is leaning forward now, raking his fingers through his long, wavy hair and saying: “And, you know, actually that’s part of the reason for the trip, Rog. Not just the anniversary. I mean, of course the anniversary. Nobody ever said you have to forget before you can move on, right? The anniversary’s obviously very important for all four of us. But there’s another reason we came, and I think you’re going to find it interesting. You know that? I really think so.”

“Hold that thought, Del,” Roger says. “And watch the steaks for a second, alright?”

“Oh, sure.” Del jumps out of his chair and strides to the barbeque. “Nice, juicy steaks. Sure thing. I’ll keep an eye on them.”

Roger walks out into his backyard. There’s a breeze, and he’s proud that the smell of his steaks will be carried right across the trailer park. People in the neighbourhood know him for just that kind of smell. For succulence. Every once in a while, he’ll lean over one of the three fences encasing his lot and spread his eyes across the park. It isn’t one of those shambles you see on TV, trailers without siding and crack smoke pluming into outer space while fat men slumber drunkenly on trampolines in their front yards. This place is classy, with smooth streets and generally well-kept lots. His neighbours are the best kind, working-class folks with practical worldviews and a respect for silence on weeknights.

“Roger unloads a right cross, snapping his hip into the blow. It’s a bazooka blast, sends the bag whooshing into a pendulum swing.”

Sometimes, Roger likes to invite a couple of them over for a bite. They discuss sensational player trades, provincial politics, and jobs leaking out of the hills like rainwater down a storm sewer. No one ever asks about William, but Roger knows they all think about him. And that’s just the way he likes it. He’s glad they aren’t here right now to see him hanging around with Del. He can’t imagine what they’d think of him after seeing a guest like this, lounging on his patio furniture like an insolent teenager. He takes a deep breath.

“These smell really delicious, Rog,” Del calls out, but Roger ignores him and squares off with the punching bag. He gives it a few soft jabs. The branch creaks as the bag swings and little shreds of bark corkscrew to the ground. Del says something about do you want another beer and I’m just going to grab a glass of wine and the steaks will be fine they smell so good.

Roger unloads a right cross, snapping his hip into the blow. It’s a bazooka blast, sends the bag whooshing into a pendulum swing. He does this three times, the fake leather thumping like Kabul. He’s aware that Del is frozen at the back entrance to the trailer, watching. He puts his hip into another cross, and his knuckles leave craters in the skin of the bag.


Del

For five long minutes before dinner is served, Del and Cassie are alone at the table. The Maceys have set out plastic cutlery and paper plates with floral borders. Mounds of Caesar salad rise from a giant silver bowl in the middle of the table. Del finds the reek of too much garlic more than a little nauseating. Still, this is an improvement over the dinner they had last time they were here, after Del insisted he and Cassie escort the Maceys all the way back to the interior. It’s not safe to drive after a thing like this, he’d said with a gentle but unrequited smile. Survivors travel in packs, he added with a sob, reaching out to give Roger’s arm a friendly squeeze. But Roger barely even made eye contact, just dragged his feet across the parking lot with Nancy trailing a few paces behind. The Maceys climbed into their ancient pick-up and backed slowly out of their space, belching a noxious cloud from the tailpipe of their truck. That right there was nearly the closing act on the whole shebang. And it would’ve been, except Nancy offered a quick, mournful wave as they drove past.

“We should follow them,” Del said, his enthusiasm renewed as he waved energetically back. “Just to be sure.”

And so here they are again, one year later. Del can feel Cassie’s gaze pinging off his face, imploring his attention, but he doesn’t want to risk exchanging a look with her in case the Maceys emerge from the kitchen and catch them in the act. He knows what she wants to communicate: the food is repellent. Industrial cow and a pile of shredded romaine slathered in dressing and masquerading as a salad. He agrees, but he’s afraid to conjugate their revulsion, because once they put that energy out there, even someone as repressed as Roger might pick up on it. And clearly, that man is already on edge. Probably he’s been that way his whole life.

There are no sounds coming from the kitchen as the seconds tick by. The whole trailer is preternaturally quiet. Del visualizes Roger leaning against the fridge, filthy with grief freshly tilled by their arrival. Nancy has her back turned, her knuckles whitening as she grips the edge of the sink and waits for Roger’s anger to pass.

No wonder Willy was so riddled with awkward mojo. The first time Keisha brought him to Whistler, Del actually felt uncomfortable in his own home. It was like a bad-trip contact-buzz from Willy, who at first was stiff as a corpse. He was dressed just like his father is now, with a collared shirt tucked into pleated trousers and ridiculous, round spectacles making him look not so much intellectual as psychotic.

Admittedly, there were a lot of red flags during that first meeting. Not least was the fact that Willy was thirty years old. And he wasn’t just Keisha’s manager at the printer ink booth, but also a junior partner in the franchise. Of course, it was a good sign that Willy had chosen a career path with high environmental auspices (because printer cartridges, Del knows well, will be among the chief plastic legacies of the computer era), but Keisha was only twenty. That’s a ten-year gulf. Yawning was the way Cassie put it. But it wasn’t that they were prudes, that they held stiff ideas about love and age. It was just that, as parents, Del and Cassie felt that Keisha should experiment sexually only with people in her cohort. There was a better balance of experience and power that way, and Keisha’s budding sexuality wouldn’t be smothered by Willy’s overgrown jungle. It made developmental sense. That’s all.

But he proved himself quickly. It was the middle of winter and Cassie was experimenting with a new menu of pickled, jarred, and dehydrated ingredients. She set a plate in front of Willy and he didn’t even wait for Keisha before cutting in. Del and Cassie exchanged approving looks. Their daughter saw them and smiled. Cassie went to the cellar and uncorked a tasty wine.

Lying in bed that night, confident that Willy and Keisha were having fair sex in the basement, Del examined the source of his initial judgment. Keisha had already told them that Willy was brought up in the interior, in 100 Mile House, and maybe that little fact had lodged itself in his brain and filtered his perception through the classic British Columbian divide: Minds were spread on the coast; the interior, barring of course the Kootenays and certain tax brackets in the Okanagan, was a redneck silo. But Del was no putz. He recognized that worldview for what it was—clichéd baggage—and he still does. Fact is, there are rednecks all over the coast. Just look at the loggers and construction workers up and down the Sea to Sky Corridor. And meanwhile, hippies long ago migrated inward to establish their utopic farmsteads. Willy was no more a projection of his environment than anyone else. Clearly, it was a question of nurture. Having made the connection, the first time Del ever set eyes on Roger was in his imagination. And he nailed it.

“His heart continued leaping. It leapt right through the roof of the house, flew pumping over the peaks of the Coast Mountains …”

He predicted the tension in the shoulders, the conservative attire, the angry morality and boiling mood swings. Immediately, his heart leapt for Willy. The poor boy—man, really—would always be welcome in their home, as long as he treated their daughter with the respect and dignity she so clearly deserved. Del resolved right there to expose Willy to every aspect of their family, starting the next morning with an oral presentation on his writing project exploring indigenous and colonial language fusions in West Africa.

But it didn’t stop there. His heart continued leaping. It leapt right through the roof of the house, flew pumping over the peaks of the Coast Mountains and began an earnest search of the interior for Willy’s father, who must also be welcomed into the Willis-Mayburry lifestyle.

And so here they are. One year later.

“Here comes grubbin’,” says Roger, striding into the dining room and setting a plate of steak in front of Del. His breath reeks of whiskey and smoke and he lowers another plate in front of Cassie. “You like it rare, right?”

Angry black grill marks are slashed across the blood-seeping meat. Two shrivelled lengths of asparagus occupy the corners of their plates like driftwood flung ashore some cancerous lake of violence. The Maceys take their seats at either end of the table, and between them is the thick and ugly energy of a couple that’s just been fighting. Del grips his plastic cutlery and gamely attacks his meal, the knife handle bending between his fingers as blood splashes across the pretty blue flowers festooned around his plate.

From the corner of his eye, Del spies Cassie pondering her food like a homicide detective prodding a corpse. He knows she’s about to say something inappropriate. It’s evident in the rapid rise and fall of her chest, the way her fingers fiddle along the chain-links of her locket, in the batting speed of her mascara-laden eyelashes. A faint sweat has sprung out of her temples and she palms it into the short, curly locks of her blonde hair. Under the table, Del reaches for her with his foot, taps her on the shin and causes her to jolt. But he’s too late.

“This looks delicious, Roger,” she says, mashing her fork into the asparagus. “Is it an animal you hunted yourself?”

Del’s jaws freeze mid-mastication. He braves a look at Nancy, who is diligently cutting her steak, tiny wrists disappearing into the sleeves of the same dark blue dress she wore during dinner last year. Her eyes flash from her plate to his, then back again. The only sign of her anxiety is a quick and grasping swipe at her bangs, which she tucks behind her fuzzy, un-pierced ear.

“I don’t hunt,” says Roger, cheeks full of steak. “Is that going to be a problem?”

Cassie’s mouth is open, but it’s Del who speaks next, a pulverized piece of meat blasting from his lips to the centre of the table as he says, “Of course not, Rog. It’s not a problem at all and we’re both really thankful to be eating with you and Nancy right now on this special day in your wonderfully renovated mobile home. And I mean, it’s obviously a special day for all four of us, even though maybe it’s hitting us all a bit differently. Me, for example, I still burst into tears for no reason at all. Just walking from one room to the other, you know? Just burst into tears! Because let’s all face it. This is heavy. This is loss. And I think what’s important is that we all come together because of what we lost, don’t you all agree too? Because of who we lost. Don’t you think so, Roger? And thank you! Thank you for dinner!”

There’s no suitable place to rest his eyes, so Del turns back to the lake of gore in his plate. He reaches out for his wine and drains the glass, realizing as it surges down his throat that he’s probably already consumed a bottle’s worth since they got here. There’s intense kinetic energy roiling across the table in all directions, and it’s impossible to know who’s conducting what. Del anticipates a long and crushing silence, a suffocating discomfiture that will pressure them out the door and into their hybrid and all the way back to the calm and security of their modest mountain retreat.

But then Roger clears an ounce of tobacco-thickened phlegm from his throat. He smiles, but not unkindly. “Steak’s no problem at all, Del.” He stretches the smile, really strains it, and looks straight across the table at Cassie. He makes a beckoning gesture with his sodden knife that Del chooses to interpret as welcoming. “It’s okay if you don’t want it, Cassie. I sometimes forget that not everyone likes to eat barbeque. We’ve probably got some frozen peas that Nancy could toss in the microwave.”

“There’s no suitable place to rest his eyes, so Del turns back to the lake of gore in his plate.”

It’s still possible that Cassie will refuse this overture, but instead she relaxes her shoulders and shakes a curl off her forehead. “I’m sorry, Roger. I guess that sometimes I just get too sucked into my own little world. I’m sure the steak is delicious.” She doesn’t go for it right away, of course. She spears the second piece of asparagus and nibbles on that instead. Still, an atmosphere of peace settles over the table.

“So, Del,” Roger says. “You were saying something outside, eh? Something about a special reason for the trip?”

“I sure was.” Del answers too quickly. He pours himself another glass of wine, pretending not to notice Cassie’s disapproving stare. “So hear me out. Hear me out. I think I’ve got the perfect way to memorialize our children. And I just know it would mean so much to both of them.”

He swings his head in Nancy’s direction. She’s been quiet throughout the meal—was quiet, too, in Vancouver and all during their last dinner in 100 Mile House—and Del wants to make sure she feels included in the supremely positive goings-on of the moment.

“Rog,” he continues. “You remember how I told you I’ve being giving serious consideration to returning to the classroom, right? Well I’ve also been giving serious consideration to approaching the director of my department regarding a bursary in Keisha and William’s name. A bursary in their names to the—get this—the African studies program at the university. Isn’t it perfect? I mean, isn’t it? African studies?”

Del can feel the excitement wrenched all over his face. He knows he’s being a bit theatrical—a bit drunk—but he doesn’t care. He thought of the bursary four months ago while in the nadir of his grief and depression. And that was the thing, wasn’t it? It got progressively worse, the grief—not better. He’d thought his bottom was at the hospital, outside the morgue after they confirmed her identity, when the floor vanished beneath him and he was nothing but pools of tears and shortages of breath and an inky blackness dense in the chambers of his heart. But it wasn’t there. The thing changed shape and colour and extended its reach and grip. For the longest time, it seemed like there was no nadir. There was only steady, awful progression, every minute the angry thing protracting by exponents, with no conclusion foreseeable in his lifetime.

Until he thought of the bursary. It was as if his subconscious had finally rigged up a rescue kit and hurled a pull-rope into his despair. He grabbed on tight. And now he knows it’ll turn out perfect. They loved Africa, didn’t they? Of course they did. And now their names will be forever associated with higher learning on the topic of the continent. Cassie even agreed to fund it with profits from the restaurants for the first ten years of its implementation.

Del looks at Roger and pops a forkful of steak into his mouth. Fluids splash his chin and he sucks them over his lower lip. Roger isn’t looking back. Roger is staring at the table and spinning the base of an empty beer bottle in tight, jerky circles. His skin is blotchy and his breathing seems difficult.

“Del,” he finally says. “You are a fucking imbecile, do you understand that? Do you? Do you fucking understand it? You are a goddamn fucking imbecile and I hate your fucking guts.”

Del stiffens and looks to Cassie for protection. But she’s focused on her plate. She’s trying to cut a corner off her steak, and she refuses to be distracted. Del slurps his wine and the meat inches down his throat like a punch in slow motion. His mouth is moving in grotesque little circles, the smell of his own breath wafting over his nostrils. But there’s nothing left for him to say.

“Do you know why?” Roger demands, his voice rising. “Do you know why? I will tell you. Listen carefully. The reason is because our children were the victims of a botched kidnapping in one of those aid-sucking basket-case countries you’re always defending. Now they are dead. Brutally murdered as they tried to escape. I have to accept that. There’s nothing I can do about that. Not from way over here in this mostly civilized nation. But then you come to my home and you tell me—and you tell my wife—that you’ve chosen to honour them by starting a program that may well encourage more sappy, bleeding heart young people to put themselves in the same danger. And let me guess. Let me guess, Del! You’ll be encouraging the students to travel, right? Because it’s not—it’s not what? Oh, that’s right. I forgot. It’s not all bullet belts and kidnappings. See, Del? See! See what a fucking imbecile you are? Do you see?”

He pushes away from the table and his chair sails off his body like hurricane debris across some devastated coastline. Shrinking into his meal, Del wonders if Roger will strike him, but the old man stomps off to the kitchen instead.

“It’s okay to be upset,” Del says to no one because no one will look at him. “It’s a touchy topic. But listen. Uh. I just realized that I—I just realized that I forgot my phone in the truck. And I should go and check on it, right? Just in case. I’ll be right back. In case I missed a call.”

He floats down the hallway to the front entrance. His shoes are heavy and awkward and he can’t quite get them on his feet. He bumps his head against the wall and notices, for the first time, a framed photo of Willy and Roger. The father is in a formal RCMP uniform, his arm around his son. Both are smiling.

In the truck, Del examines his eyes in one of the make-up mirrors. They’re bloodshot from the booze. A teardrop dangles from the tip of his nose. He reaches into the glove compartment and finds one of the pinners he rolled just in case things went off the rails like this. Intuitively, he knows Roger’s stance on drugs, even soft ones like weed. But this is an emergency, so he lights up, draws hard, and holds the smoke in his lungs. Poor Roger. It’s not his fault.


Nancy

In the kitchen, Roger ransacks the cupboards. He swears under his breath, shoves dishes aside, slams one door and throws open another. Nancy floats across the floor like a spirit. Her dress falls all the way to her feet. It’s her favourite article of clothing, because she can wear it quietly. That’s what she wants most from her clothes. She likes to dress quietly. But sometimes she’s too quiet, and she knows this, so she’s wary of resting her hand on Roger’s shoulder. She could startle him. His heart could seize. It happens to people every day. So instead she shakes the pills lightly, the sound like a baby rattle, and Roger wheels around, eyes immediately landing on the bottle.

“I just didn’t want them to see, honey,” she says. “You know. In case they came into the kitchen looking for a glass or something. But they’re right here, okay? And you should only take two, okay? Because you’ve been drinking.”

Nancy pops the little white lid off the bottle and shakes two oblong tranquilizers into her furrowed palm. Roger snatches them from her hand. Their wedding rings clink as their fingers collide. He opens the fridge and pries another beer out of the cardboard case on the bottom shelf. He downs the pills, Adam’s apple like a pitched baseball.

“I need a minute.” He turns to stare out the window into the backyard. “Need a minute to calm down, okay?”

She fits the lid back on the bottle and drifts toward the dining room. “Of course you do, dear.”

Cassie is alone at the table. Her steak has been cut into dozens of ragged pieces and Nancy recognizes this tactic from when William was a boy. If he didn’t like something they cooked, he would just chop it up and move it around. He thought he was fooling them, and sometimes she let him get away with it. After dinner, she would throw the meat over the fence for the neighbour’s dog. That way Roger would be fooled as well.

Nancy eases herself into her chair, careful that the pill bottle doesn’t rattle in her pocket. “Did you enjoy your meal, Cassie? I’m very sorry we forgot about your specific tastes. We’ll have to make a point of remembering next time. We’ll have to write them down.”

“It was excellent, Nancy,” Cassie says. “It really was.” Nancy doesn’t understand this preoccupation with food, because who worries so much about steak? And she doesn’t understand this observance of the bohemian, the red highlights in her hair, or the black nail polish. Nancy likes her hair pulled straight back into a modest ponytail. She used to paint her nails red, but only at Christmas; however, now she finds it oddly sexual and therefore inappropriate.

“That’s Vancouver for you, but it isn’t 100 Mile House, where parents can raise their children and children can raise themselves.”

These small differences aside, Nancy firmly believes that Keisha would’ve had a better chance in life if she’d grown up closer to her mother. It’s not that Cassie shouldn’t be out in the world earning a living. Nancy supports that. She did it herself, didn’t she? She worked twenty-five years as a substitute teacher at Jerry Rigs Elementary. She was the only sub with her own mailbox in the faculty room. And Cassie was obviously very good at her job too, because you don’t mortgage a mansion in Whistler with empty pockets and bad ideas. No, the problem is that men don’t know how to raise children. Not properly. It’s like Keisha grew up trying to be friends with her dad, and her dad unconsciously encouraged bad behaviour.

But even that only explains so much. If there’s one thing Nancy learned as a substitute teacher, it’s that kids have minds of their own. They really do. Huge portions of their lives are lived away from either parent. Kids are walking to school. They’re in playgrounds and public washrooms. So much of what shapes them is unknown to their parents. Too much. And really, the Willis-Mayburrys had far less influence in Keisha’s life than she and Roger had had in William’s.

But that’s Vancouver for you, isn’t it? You turn on the TV news and see gangsters blowing each other away at the strip mall. You open the newspapers and young people are stabbing needles into their arms to get high on drugs. Someone jumps off a bridge. Someone else goes skydiving and crashes into a cliff. That’s Vancouver for you, but it isn’t 100 Mile House, where parents can raise their children and children can raise themselves.

Cassie is fidgeting with the plastic cutlery, tapping the fork and knife together like drumsticks. She keeps jerking her head down the hall toward the front door, and Nancy assumes she’s waiting for Del to come back inside from his phone call.

From the kitchen, Nancy hears the sound of running water and clattering cupboards. Roger is cleaning. Last year, after the Willis-Mayburrys backed out of the driveway, he washed all the walls in the trailer with a sponge. It took all evening, and in a few places he scrubbed the paint away.

“It’s not his fault, you know,” Nancy says. She presses her palms into the seat of her chair and sits on the back of her hands. But then she realizes how girlish this looks, so she places her hands on the table in front of her. “I’m sorry if it seems that way.”

Cassie stops tapping. “Whose fault?”

“Roger’s?” Nancy offers with a shrug. She’s staring at the table. “Del’s.”

Cassie starts tapping again. “But it’s someone’s fault, isn’t it? Isn’t everything someone’s fault? That’s what Roger seems to be saying, right? That my husband got our daughter killed? Got your son killed? That my husband wants other young people to travel abroad and be killed? I’m sorry, Nancy, I really am, but isn’t that precisely what Roger is telling us?”

“Roger is angry,” says Nancy, with a quick glance toward the kitchen to make sure he isn’t coming. “He doesn’t mean the things he says. He misses William and he’s angry at the men who killed him. That’s all. Nothing to do with the two of you.”

Cassie frowns and shakes her head. “We’re angry, too, Nancy. So what?”

The bowl of Caesar salad sits untouched in the middle of the table, two wooden salad spoons rising from the saucy lettuce Nancy chopped herself. She made the dressing too, with lots of cream and vinegar, a few dozen cloves of garlic, and a shower of salt and pepper. When the mix came out runny, she added a few spoonfuls of mayonnaise. She got the idea when Roger brought home the steaks, huge flanks of red meat running with their own blood and soaking through the packaging of Styrofoam trays and plastic wrap. Salad, she thought right away. I need to make Cassie a salad.

“Here.” Nancy reaches for the bowl, her wrists emerging from her dress sleeves. “Have some salad, honey.” There are no side plates. There’s Cassie’s plate, filled with uneaten steak. And Del’s has barely been touched. Nancy is still working on her meal, and anyway she wants to try the salad herself. That leaves Roger’s plate, which has been wiped clean of meat and blood, the two pieces of shrivelled asparagus forgotten on the side. It’ll have to do. Gripping the salad spoons like bush knives, Nancy cranes a heap of Caesar on Roger’s plate and serves it to Cassie, who offers a thin smile in return.

“Go ahead,” Nancy says with a proud nod. “I made it myself.”

Cassie struggles with her plastic fork, managing finally to prong one of the limp and dripping leaves. She levers it into her mouth and chews slowly.

Nancy struggles to scoop a soggy crouton. “So what was Keisha like when she was young? We always hear about how outgoing city kids are, especially in the Lower Mainland. Was it ever, you know, a handful?”

She expects to hear a story of headlong adolescence, maybe some marijuana in the underwear drawer, maybe a knock on the front door and the RCMP officer looking stern but forgiving beneath his patrolman’s cap. Maybe even a story about the family car ‘borrowed’ one night and driven wildly down the mountains: a flat tire, a bout of drinking, a dented bumper and thank God no one was hurt, at least not this time.

Keisha was very polite when William brought her over. She brought them flowers and started every sentence with please or thank-you. But there was rebellion in her heart. Nancy could tell. Just one look and Nancy could tell. She imagined a lifetime of newspaper headlines streaming around the girl like ashes from a forest fire. A sad thing to happen to an essentially good kid. But that was Vancouver for you.

Cassie chases a crouton around a pool of dressing. She says her daughter was an angel. She says her daughter was the most creative person she’s ever met. She wasn’t mad when Del approved the piercings and the tattoos, even though Keisha was still a minor. She didn’t think she’d like it, not on the girl’s forearm, but it turned out beautifully. A glacier-capped mountain in a wreath of clouds. Cassie took a picture and used it as a background on her phone.

“I mean, it was just classic Keisha,” she says, giving up on her salad and pouring another glass of wine instead.

She starts talking about their first restaurant, the one in Whistler Village. She starts talking about Keisha working there as a hostess all through high school, and already Nancy can tell this won’t be a handful story. No. Instead, it’ll be a little angel story. A little angel story told by a bereaved mother wracked with guilt.

“I fired an employee for stealing,” Cassie continues. “I knew he was having a hard time. But I draw the line at stealing. He could’ve asked for the money, you know? I would’ve lent it to him. I’m not a stingy person. I would’ve helped him. But stealing? You can’t ever trust a person like that again. So I fired him. A couple weeks later, he called the restaurant looking for Keisha, but she wasn’t working. She’d gone skydiving with a group of friends. ‘Just tell her I said thanks,’ this guy says. ‘Tell her I’m glad the police didn’t have to get involved.’ And then he hangs up. No explanation. Turns out, Keisha gave him the money he needed. Wouldn’t tell us why, either. Just said he needed it and it was her money to give. She was like that. She was very generous. And when we later uncovered further evidence of the kid’s theft, she convinced us not to call the police. Just to leave it alone. She had a very big heart.”

Nancy reaches across the small space between them and gives Cassie’s hand a squeeze. Nancy’s fingers are old and peeling, white flecks in her cuticles and puffy blue veins coursing toward her knuckles. Cassie’s are still smooth. Like a model’s.

“It’s not your fault that she was reckless,” Nancy says. “Take it from me. I was a mother for longer than you were, and I learned quick that you can’t blame yourself for the decisions your children make. You just can’t. Because they aren’t your decisions. They really aren’t.”

Of course, that’s easy for Nancy to say. William had never been reckless. When he approached Roger to borrow $12,000 so he could buy into the printer cartridge franchise, he’d come with a dossier of business projections and a proposed repayment schedule. They sat down at this very table and he treated his father like the CEO of a bank. He wore a tie. His hair smelled like the barber shop. Roger asked a hundred questions and William answered them all. It was a difficult decision, but Roger cashed in their stocks, remortgaged the trailer, and transferred a huge bulk of their savings into William’s chequing account. They would get the money back. And anyway they had Roger’s pension, and Roger had attained an enviable ranking within the force.

Things came up over the next few years. Hurdles. The money was never repaid, but William couldn’t be blamed for that. It’s tough to run a small business. It’s extremely risky. But it’s not an issue of recklessness, and everyone knows that. After he died, they got a phone call from his business partner, and the man bought them out for $7,000. Roger filled the pick-up truck with plywood and power tools, rolls of carpet and bundles of two-by-fours. For the next eight months, Nancy lost him behind a wall of swirling sawdust and ill-fitting safety glasses.

“Reckless?” Cassie pulls her hand away. “What do you mean, reckless?”

“Well,” Nancy says, and she can’t help it—she grips the chair again and sits on her hands. “For one thing all those tattoos. You see? And the skydiving. Maybe reckless is the wrong word. Maybe I should say brave. Keisha was the kind of person who might try to escape from a van in the desert, you see? Rather than waiting for the army? Like they do in Central America. I looked it up. It works that way with kidnappers in the Colombian drug war. It’s just that Keisha was brave. But that’s not your fault, Cassie! And it’s not Del’s fault either. I just want you to know that Roger knows that too. We both know that, okay? We really do.”

“ Take it from me. I was a mother for longer than you were, and I learned quick that you can’t blame yourself for the decisions your children make …’ 

Nancy’s out of breath by the time she finishes. She inhales loudly, as if she were startled. Her hands are tingling beneath her thighs. She shifts on her chair to free them, one by one, and returns to her cutlery, beginning a new campaign to consume the salad she made just for Cassie. She is afraid to look at her. There’s a tremendous tension building around that corner of the table, much like before one of Roger’s outbursts. Nancy feels it in her bladder.

But the salad is a hit, she’s pleased to note. She put the perfect dose of garlic in the dressing, and that has to count for something. Maybe she’ll ask Cassie about it later. You never know. It could even end up a staple at one of her restaurants.

“Ladies?”

Roger’s voice sounds airy and distant, as if he were speaking from the bottom of a drain pipe. But he’s right there, standing at the far entrance to the dining room, water dripping from the end of his tie, who knows for how long. Nancy still can’t find the courage to look at Cassie, so she studies her husband instead.

The tranquilizers and alcohol have mashed his face like potatoes. His cheeks are doughy and his mouth is open, a thin cord of saliva hanging from his upper lip. His eyes are glassy behind his spectacles. He’s holding a bag of garbage, the white one from the kitchen now dripping on the dining room floor, a steady string of dark and bloody droplets. Houseflies buzz ovals around his hand.

“All done,” he slurs with a boyish giggle. “Nice and clean.”


Cassie

The front door hangs ajar like an open window in prison. Cassie can feel the moist, late summer’s evening wafting in through the crack. She bends down to wrestle with her pumps, the Maceys looming over her as she sinks her heel into the thinly padded cup.

“Hope the hotel’s good enough,” Roger says, his thickened voice sliding toward her like a slug down a plant stem. “They have flat screens in there now. Pay-per-view.”

No doubt Del has ensconced himself in the hybrid, smoked up all the weed he smuggled from the coast, and now awaits her as a bullied child does his mother from the safety of the principal’s office. He’ll be sitting there with bleary, pot-lover’s eyes, his seatbelt already fastened, an edition of BBC Focus on Africa open in his lap while he waits for her to assuage his feelings over Roger’s maniacal rebuke of the bursary proposal. Or, considering how much wine he guzzled before hitting the dope, Del could be drooling through the middle stages of a mild coma.

But she can’t find it in herself to be resentful, not with the front door halfway open and her own escape so imminent. True, this return to 100 Mile House has gone much smoother than the initial adventure, which she would’ve vetoed right there in the parking lot if she hadn’t been so shocked by the recent sight of her only daughter’s corpse. It wasn’t so much the bullet holes—maybe because they’d been so clean and gentle looking, almost more like dramatic blackheads than death dealing puncture wounds. There had been a lack of electricity in Keisha’s body, and that’s what Cassie found truly disturbing. Just this basic, fundamental lifelessness, a grey aurora she remembered from her mother’s dead body—observed in a hospital bed, after a full and happy life, which concluded in sleep—but nothing she’d ever expected to see in her child. “Let’s follow them,” Del had said, and Cassie suddenly found herself sobbing in the passenger seat while Del weaved through traffic in a mad effort to catch up to the Maceys’ scrapheap pick-up truck.

Roger clocked their pursuit at a gas station outside Kamloops. He nodded grimly, one hand clutching the bucket of his truck, the other toggling gas into the tank. Through the rear windshield, Nancy’s head remained still and focused straight ahead. Del took this to be just the sort of invitation a gruff and taciturn man would extend to fellow sufferers of incalculable loss, so he pressed on for the remaining hours it took to reach 100 Mile House. Cassie simply watched the countryside blur past. She hated the interior. It was better not to focus.

Around twilight, they pulled into the trailer park and followed Roger and Nancy to their lot. Roger had barely killed the engine before bursting out of the driver’s side door and storming into the trailer. Nancy moved more slowly, more ambiguously, and even though she didn’t look back, Del imagined she’d invited them in. The shut and locked front door was just an accident. Same with the bare bulb suspended from a fixture in the wall above their heads; it’s dull and dirty glow snapped off as soon as their feet landed on the stoop.

“They probably thought it was already off,” Del said, raising a slack fist to knock on the door. “Right? Because they probably left it on the whole time they were gone. Which was daytime. See what I mean?”

“When finally the silence was broken, it was by Del, who spoke to them as he might a classroom, starting first with a tearful and impromptu eulogy …”

The door opened, however reluctantly, and Nancy invited them in. The trailer was in vile condition. The carpets had begun to come up in various corners and the plywood flooring was visible beneath. The furniture stank of dead skin and a million aggressive cold seasons. The walls were blotchy with fresh compound, as if Roger had been in the middle of some DIY-renovations effort when the phone call had come from Vancouver.

They ate microwaved pizza pouches in absolute silence. Cassie vacillated between grief and revulsion. She could feel the absence of sea salt in the air. Her guts bubbled and cramped as the processed meal waged war on her digestive enzymes. When finally the silence was broken, it was by Del, who spoke to them as he might a classroom, starting first with a tearful and impromptu eulogy for both Keisha and William, but moving fast into an apology for West Africa, an explanation of the various political and historical forces that destabilized countries like Mali, and then imploring them, as a group, himself included, not to confuse the continent’s episodic tensions for its daily life. “Because after all,” he said, “tempting though it may be, we don’t call the RCMP a posse of gangsters because of how that Polish fellow died in the Vancouver airport, now do we?”

Roger disintegrated on the spot. It was impossible to register the order of events, but after twenty seconds of near-paranormal shrieking, the table had been overturned, a pizza pouch had exploded between Cassie’s breasts, Nancy huddled crying in the corner, and Roger held Del an inch off the floor by the scruff of his neck, shaking him as if he were trying to beat the dust out of an old carpet.

So indeed, this visit has been a marked improvement over the last. Sure, she had to resist the still-hammering urge to correct Nancy’s tendency to conflate Vancouver with Whistler—or, somehow worse, that embarrassing little speech placing Colombia in Central America. Meanwhile, the Maceys’ blame-fuelled coping skills are still as obvious and offensive as they are misguided and misplaced. According to Roger, it’s their fault William died. According to Nancy, it’s Keisha’s.

It took tremendous effort to set aside the bitter, whip-smacked feelings inspired by those accusations. But it’s the right thing to do. Cassie will never admit this out loud, not even to Del, but she expects that kind of ignorance when she travels any farther east than Hope. These people have been nurtured by a steady diet of suspicion and fear, the whole vein-bursting mess served up by the inadequacy of rural education and the culture of anger that permeates the sorts of male-dominated trades one finds in economies of natural resource extraction.

And you know what else? There’s more of them coming, and they’re headed straight for the coast. Because, honestly, where does everyone think these hardened hate-machines are going when their mines and their mills shutter down for good? They’ll congeal right downtown Capital City, digging through the dumpsters behind McDonald’s and throwing rocks through the windows of her restaurants whenever a favoured sports team is shut out of the finals.

Point is, Cassie can adjust to the legions of Rogers and Nancys in the world, even if they mean her harm. She doesn’t want to lead an angry life. She refuses to be consumed by resentment.

The rest is all bullshit.

“And, dear,” Nancy is saying, her fingers laced against the tiny bulge of her belly. “Will you tell Del that we say goodbye? It must be a very important phone call. Best to leave him to it.”

She stands against the shrunken backdrop of her husband, who at dinner appeared headed straight for another of his violent paroxysms. But right now Roger looks like he nipped out front to do a jay with Del. His whole posture is deflated, like a suit jacket hung from a hook instead of a coat hanger. He couldn’t threaten a child right now, and Cassie knows better than to chalk it up to the beer. Roger has the vacancy of prescription drugs about him, the same dull-steel complexion her mother had toward the end. Finished with her pumps and standing up to say her goodbyes, Cassie wonders if Roger might not be sick. After all, he is fairly old. And unhealthy.

“Of course I’ll tell him,” she says, and now there’s another bout of that same awkward tension the four of them experienced when she and Del first arrived. The problem is they just don’t know how to touch each other. They fumble through a series of inchoate gestures: raised arms and dipping shoulders, flitting eye contact and clumsy half-steps, everyone holding their breath. Cassie is tempted to give up on the whole thing and slip right out the crack in the door, but finally Nancy happens upon a suitably inviting maneuver, just the right distance between her thin, outstretched arms, and a beckoning twitch to her fingers. Cassie finds herself sliding into a hug.

“Nancy nods, a faint smile on her lips, equal parts trepidation and gratitude.”

Nancy feels precious in her arms, like a small, frightened dog. Cassie buries her chin in Nancy’s clavicle and whispers into her neck: “Del and I wanted to invite you guys for a visit next month. Our treat. I’m opening a new restaurant in the East End and we’d both love it if you guys could join our table.”

They release each other and draw back. Nancy nods, a faint smile on her lips, equal parts trepidation and gratitude. Roger mutters something she can’t understand, but his chin is bobbing in the affirmative, so Cassie shakes his slackened hand and steps outside into the night.

As she approaches the hybrid, Del looks past her and waves boyishly, his pretense of an important phone call completely forgotten. He says nothing as Cassie backs out of the driveway. Despite the thickening darkness, he flips through the pages of his magazine, licking his lips in concentration.

“Do you think I should try them again next year?” he eventually says, when they’ve left the trailer park behind and merged onto the highway toward the hotel. “About the bursary?”

“Yeah.” Cassie takes one hand of the wheel and squeezes his knee. “I think you should, honey. And who knows. We may see them sooner.”

 


Paul Carlucci is the author of The Secret Life of Fission, which won the 2013 Danuta Gleed Literary Award. House of Anansi is publishing a second collection in 2016. Paul’s stories have been individually published and are forthcoming in Riddle Fence, subTerrain, Little Fiction, Descant, The Fiddlehead, Carousel, and others.

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