Songs from a suitcase, p.3
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       Songs from a Suitcase, p.3

           Leslie Smith Dow
 
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  Then the unthinkable happened. He came to school.

  I was out in the smokers’ pit enjoying the free bit of bamba I’d just hustled. A God-awful noise in the parking lot jerked us all out of our reverie. Five choppers drove right up on the lawn, my old man leading the pack. Wearing his colours and everything. Shit. What could he possibly want? I looked around for a convenient hiding place but unless I bolted across four lanes of traffic and into the Dipsy Dairy, there was no cover whatsoever. Besides, he’d already spotted me.

  Throwing his arms wide open and beaming his toothless grin, he clomped up to me, fake spurs jangling from his boots. “Son!” he called out, to ensure no one was confused about my paternity, “Git over here, you little cocksucker.” I sprang to attention, hoping my smile appeared genuine enough. I had to I try to keep him in this friendly mood. He crushed me to his chest and mashed his gloved hand over my face. “Where ya bin? I got a job fer ya.”

  I won’t go into the details of the unpaid employment Daddy had devised for me, but suffice it to say, it was one of the many reasons I had done everything in my power to resist becoming part of his evil empire. So far, I had avoided arrest, though I was “known to police.” I had been threatened with detention in Juvie more than once but Daddy had always managed to have me released into his custody. Lack of a criminal record was my one personal quality which really appealed to him.

  My assignment involved delicate undercover work.

  I’d been sitting at Earth, Ink all morning, watching Daddy’s best and possibly brightest amigo, Gunther, tattoo the Black Sabbath logo on a crackhead’s butt. It was nearly noon and he had just started on the second cheek. She’d been face down on the table for hours without saying a word. Not even a whimper. She hadn’t noticed me and I was tempted to get out of my chair and check on her. But I restrained myself. It was part of Daddy’s secret assignment that I remain inconspicuous. I was parched, and bored, having already mentally catalogued all of Gunther’s and the crackhead’s tattoos and calculated the cash expended on each. Now, I was trying to divine why in hell such tough guy would want a tattoo of Mickey Mouse — especially in such a delicate spot.

  I still didn’t know why I was sitting there but the old man’s orders were not to leave until something happened. He said I’d know when.

  Sure enough, two yobs burst in, shot at Guther and yanked the crackhead off the table and out the door, her panties around her ankles. I dived under my chair. The whole thing took less than thirty seconds. I guessed this was what Daddy had been expecting. I had no idea what had just happened—or why—but I hoped my secret mission had been accomplished. I’d missed mass again and I knew Mother Theresa would take my truancy as a personal affront. No doubt she would find any explanation I might offer for my absence to be imaginative at best.

  Gunther looked over at me and growled, baring his teeth, which he had artistically filed to sharp points. I stared back. I was used to his posturing. These artists were all the same: all bark, no bite. Still, he got on my nerves, and vice versa. He was still upset about his daughter. I realize now I should never have helped her run away, but she seemed genuinely terrified by the guy, and at the time, going to live with her mother—who she swore had gotten clean—seemed the better choice.

  Our plan would have worked except for one mistake: Trinity’s mother called Gunther to gloat over what she saw as her impending victory. The result wasn’t pretty, I can tell you. Daddy and his pals arrived and then the shouting and furniture-throwing started. When it was all over, Trin and I were amazed to find ourselves unharmed. Even better, Gunther finally agreed to let Trinity go, and that was all that counted. She’d never looked back and now she was on her way to one of the best universities in the country. On a scholarship.

  I got the hell out of Earth, Ink.

  With Trin gone, I started sleeping pretty much full time in the music room. No one went down there anymore, not even the janitors, on account of the flooding. It was starting to smell though, especially the carpets. Sister Claude stopped by occasionally to pick up some sheet music or a trombone. She was perplexed at first, as if she couldn’t quite place who I was, but eventually, she decided I must be one of the staff members.

  Now, every time I hear a Harley, no matter how distant, I head for the elevator. I studiously avoided meeting my old man or any of his cronies after the incident at Earth, Ink, and so far, he hadn’t given me any more assignments.

  The elevator key is critical, as Trin would have known when she gave it to me. Using the elevator is the only way I can get around in the building after hours, since the doors to each floor are alarmed. The elevator opens directly into the cafeteria, where glorious leftovers await me each night. The great thing about living here is that the building is locked, and no one, not even Daddy, can get in. I don’t smoke. Anything.

  Each night I study Trinity’s binder. Once a week or so, usually Friday afternoons, I hang out with Mother Theresa. Sometimes we go down to the cafeteria and she makes us a pot of chamomile tea. We talk about the future. Sometimes she mentions Trinity and how she turned her life around.

  We say a little prayer, right there at the table, before we drink the tea. I don’t mind, really, and I’m even starting to like the colour lavender. Bless you Trinity. Bless all the virgins.

  REAL ESTATE

  “There are ten acres out there,” she said, waving her hand vaguely at the dense bush crowding up against the house. “I’ve never been all the way to the back, but when he was here, he used to keep all this cut down.”

  She hadn’t hesitated when she said it, that careful “he,” but the sound of it still made me wince. I knew she didn’t trust herself to say his name. “Oh,” I said, hoping to sound neutral.

  From where we stood I could see clear to the front of the property, where two little boys played on what was meant to be a lawn. It was a field, really, dotted with small, gnarly bushes, groundhog holes and bare spots. Weeds covered the rest. “He used to mow that, too,” she continued, sweeping her hand toward the field. “They used to play lacrosse, soccer, all kinds of games.”

  The boys didn’t look like her. They were dark-haired, tanned, and handsome. Too quiet for boys. Like shadows. I knew about that. How you had to try to disappear.

  I’d already forgotten her name, so I had to hurry after her before she disappeared upstairs. I wanted to ask about the furnace. Its age, and so forth. “There isn’t one.” Her voice echoed back at me from the hallway. I ran up the stairs two at a time.

  “This is the so-called master bedroom,” she was saying. Now there was a real bite to her voice. I deliberately tried not to look at her, but she was standing in the doorway, forcing me to squeeze by. She stared at me, eyes blazing. I knew she was daring me to ask what had happened. Daring me to sympathize.

  “Are you thinking about listing it with a real estate agent?” I asked, looking away. There had been no sign at the front gate, but she’d given me careful directions over the phone. “No, I can’t afford the commission. I need to sell as fast as I can.” Then, she added, almost in a whisper, “We need to get out of here.”

  I tried hard to concentrate on looking out the window. The boys were still scuffling around in the dirt. They seemed to be trapping ants in empty jars. “About the furnace,” I managed to say, finally. “I told you, there isn’t one,” she said, flatly. I knew this must have been his idea.

  “But what do you do?” I asked. I really couldn’t figure out how you survived a Canadian winter without a furnace. Though I did grow up in the city. I know things are different out here. Really different.“There’s a wood stove,” she replied.

  “One?”

  “Yes, it gets quite warm.” She was trying not to let her exasperation show, so she spoke slowly. As though I was stupid.

  “The boys carry the wood in from the garage every day in winter. It’s one of their chores.”

  “What about the rest of t
he house?” I asked.

  “Oh, it’s fine, just fine,” she replied. Too casually. “I’ll show you.”

  Down the second floor stairs, and down again we went, into what she called “the lower level.” I could see dark, mildewy stains on the walls.

  “There are three bedrooms down here,” she was saying. “One for the boys, right here….” Another one she said she used as a sewing room, but which was packed with boxes, and had only a small window anyway. The third room was directly across from the boys’ bedroom. She opened the door a crack, letting out a smell of stale urine. This room had no window at all but I could see the outline of a wheelchair in the darkness. She closed the door again quickly.

  “That’s where our boarder lives. He’s out just now.”

  I felt, rather than saw, one of the boys flit by me. “Jamie!” she said to him, sharply. “I told you to play outside.” It was the older boy, the one just beginning to be gangly. He looked at his mother for a moment, then disappeared again.

  “Stay where I can see you,” she called after him. There was a catch in her voice when she said his name. Jamie. That must have been his name. Or James. Jim, maybe. It was August, but I was starting to feel cold just standing there. There was no warmth at all. No sunlight. It was just like a concrete bunker. Those boys must freeze at night. Jesus. And the winters. I shifted from one foot to the other, rubbing my hands together.

  “Well?” she asked. Very direct, this woman. I’m not good with people like that; I’m more of a hemm-er and a haw-er. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. She just kept looking at me, though, and I could feel my face starting to go red. Just then, there was a sound of tires crunching on gravel. Her eyes widened in panic, and she ran upstairs. Thank God. I could hear her yelling something at the boys. I hesitated, then went up after her.

  It was a long driveway, full of potholes that needed to be filled. “That must be your husband,” she called from the window, when our old red Ford finally came into view. I could hear the relief in her voice now.

  “Yes,” I said. I could feel my heart pounding, for no particular reason, as I watched him climb out of the car. I say climb because Herk is tall. Dark. Wears his hair on the long side. Desperate to move back to the country, is Herk. He grew up around here. Not like me. City girl though I am, I’ll give anything a try. Once. But the length of that driveway. Think of the snow in winter. Think of the shovelling. Even a snowblower wouldn’t do it. We’d have to get a truck, or a tractor with a plough on the front. You could be socked in for a week, otherwise. Cut right off.

  Now Herk never met a kid he didn’t like, so when he saw the boys he went straight over, and within half a minute they were running around like old pals. He keeps a soccer ball in the back of the car, and they started right in on a game. The boys were laughing and cutting up with Herk, and every time one of them scored a goal, they all did an impromptu victory dance, complete with war whoops.

  I stood beside her at the window, watching them. I couldn’t help laughing at Herk’s antics, and was about to suggest we go outside and cheer them on. Then I saw her face. She was as white as a sheet. Looked like she had seen a ghost.

  “Um…” I said, trying to attract her attention. I still couldn’t remember her name. Damn. “Do you want to go outside?” I asked. She didn’t answer me. Just stared straight ahead.

  “I’m going out,” I said. She still didn’t answer.

  “Okay, see you. Nice to meet you. Thanks for the tour.”

  I went out the front door, and maybe I did close it a little too hard behind me. Or maybe it was the wind. I walked over to the car and sat on the hood. The engine was still warm. Good. I was freezing from being in that bloody basement. I looked back at the house. She was still standing in front of the living room window, only now she had her hands and forehead pressed to the glass. She might have been crying.

  “Okay, Herk,” I called. “I’m ready to go.” He didn’t hear me. He and the boys were making too much noise.

  “Herk,” I called again. “Herk, let’s go.”

  “In a minute.”

  “Herk, we have to go.”

  “One more goal, honey.”

  “Herk,” I called, louder this time. “We have to go. We have to get out of here. Now.”

  I got in the car and started the engine. Finally Herk got the message. He jogged around to the passenger side and slid in beside me. He was still shutting his door as I started turning the car around. He settled back in his seat, waiting for some explanation. I could feel my face going red again.

  I was starting to get flustered, and missed second gear. The car lurched forward into third. I knew Herk would be wincing in disapproval. He never liked it when I drove. I couldn’t look at him, so I glanced in the rearview mirror instead.

  She was still standing there, staring out the living room window.

  UNNAMED

  It was a yellow day, so I know it must have been a Sunday.

  He was so tiny, almost like a mouse. I had some pet gerbils, once, and they had tiny little pink babies, all curled up. He was like that. He mewed just like them, never cried. I thought it was cute. The old gossips said he was like that on account of Billy and me marrying like we did.

  I could tell what they meant. That we shouldn’t’ve. That it there was something perverted about it. About us. But there’s no law against it, so why should we be blamed? It wasn’t as though we could’ve done anything about it anyway. Me and Billy have always been together, always wanted all there was of each other. It’s been that way between us as far back as either of us can remember. Our folks didn’t try to stop us, and why should they? We was family, and there was nothing better than that.

  It was me who wanted to marry the most, though we had to wait a year until Billy came of age.

  Billy didn’t care, said it wouldn’t make any difference. Two people couldn’t be closer than us. We were practically the same. Just in different bodies. After that day down at the courthouse, I could see it did make a difference. I could feel people looking at us different. I sure felt like I was something. I was already a wife, and I had Billy to look after. And he had me.

  We needed a place of our own and there was no way I was living in that house any longer, not with all the ruckus that was always going on. We tried setting up house in the old trailer out back, but the roof leaked something awful in a rainstorm, and it seems like it’s always raining around here. We moved into the garage then, but we had a deal of work fixing it up. The smell of grease and gas was terrible, and I’d wake up nights coughing and sometimes I was even sick to my stomach.

  One thing I knew. If we were ever to have children I surely didn’t want them growing up in no greasy garage. Which they would be if we didn’t do something soon. I said to Billy it would only be over my dead body that I’d be moving back into either of our parents’ houses. So back into the trailer we went.

  Uncle helped us out. He’s just fine if you get to him first thing in the morning. Anyway, he helped us to tow it down the back lane a ways, so we’d have some quiet, away from all the dogs and cars going back and forth and the drinking and such. He found us a nice broad-limbed fir tree to park under. It was like a big, outdoor room, and the rain hardly fell through at all.

  Such a peaceful spot. Them first few days were what I’d sure call an adventure. Billy went off to get us some drinking water and rig us up a long drop. I found some old corrugated iron back in the woods that must have come off some old shack, and we rigged it up over top the trailer. We built us a kind of oven out of some bricks, and put it right under the big tree. It was just like camping, only permanent.

  I thought we were set up pretty nice. I won’t even say nothing about our night-times together. My face gets all hot and I start to feel all prickly when I even think about it. I kept on puking though and then I knew I must
be going to have a baby. Which made me real happy and proud. Billy was, too, and he promised me right then he’d take me straight to a doctor when it was my time. Meantime, all I’d have to do was wait.

  Billy was real good about providing for us. Every day he went out to catch something for our dinner. Sometimes he’d catch a black bass or a even a big fat salmon. Once in a while he got a possum or a groundhog. These were the best. You just strip off the skin, cut them into pieces, and boil them up, bones and all. We thought we’d save the skins to make a little something for Baby. Porkypines was the worst. All them quills, and the meat had a stink to it

  that just didn’t agree with me at all in my condition.

  Well, I got tired of just lying around being fat, so off I’d walk along the road and into the woods, picking up whatever I could find. You’d be surprised at what I would come home with. I found lots of gloves (never a matching pair, though), two or three baseball caps, and one time, a lady’s fancy scarf. I hauled a shopping cart out of the ditch, which came in real handy for putting stuff in. I found quite a few hubcaps, a pair of kid’s sunglasses, a muddy running shoe, and a whole lot more. I lugged everything I found back home, because you never know what might be useful.

  Then I found the picnic table. Some kids or someone had dumped it into the river. I had to call Billy to come and help me get it out, because I was getting pretty big by then. The water was some cold, but I splashed right in and started heaving on the back end. Billy was tugging on the front. We had a time wrestling it to shore, but we finally got it up on the bank. I could feel water pouring out of me, like I was taking a pee, but I wasn’t. I told Billy and we both laughed a bit. We’d carried that table half-way to home when them pains just about slammed me into the ground. I didn’t know what had hit me, and they just kept coming, wave after wave. I felt like I was being turned inside out. I hardly caught my breath when they’d hit me again. It was like having the most awful ‘flu ever, heaving and sweats and a ripping in my guts, only with nothing ever coming up.

 
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