Issue 100, Summer-Fall 1986
Trudy threw a jug across the room. It didn’t reach the opposite wall, it didn’t hurt anybody, it didn’t even break.
This was the jug without a handle, cement-colored, with brown streaks in it, rough as sandpaper to the touch, that Dan made the winter he took pottery classes. He made six little handleless cups, to go with it. The jug and the cups were supposed to be for saki, but the local liquor store doesn’t carry saki. Once they brought some home from a trip, but they didn’t really like it. So the jug Dan made sits on the highest open shelf in the kitchen, and a few odd items of value are kept in it. Trudy’s wedding ring and her engagement ring, the medal Robin won for all-round excellence, in Grade Eight, a long, two-strand necklace of jet beads, that belonged to Dan’s mother, and was willed to Robin. Trudy won’t let her wear it yet.
Trudy came home from work a little after midnight, she entered the house in the dark. Just the little stove light was on — she and Robin always left that on for each other. Trudy didn’t need any other light. She climbed up on a chair without even letting go of her bag, and got down the jug, fished around inside it.
It was gone. Of course. She had known it would be gone.
She went through the dark house to Robin’s room, still with her bag over her arm, the jug in her hand. She turned on the overhead light. Robin groaned, and turned over, pulled the pillow over her head. Shamming.
“Your grandmother’s necklace,” Trudy said. “Why did you do that? Are you insane?”
Robin shammed a sleepy groan. All the clothes she owned, it seemed, old and new and clean and dirty, were scattered on the floor, on the chair, the desk, the dresser, even on the bed itself. On the wall was a huge poster showing a hippopotamus, with the words underneath “Why Was I Born So Beautiful?” and another poster showing Terry Fox running along a rainy highway, with a whole cavalcade of cars behind him. Dirty glasses, empty yogurt containers, school notes, a Tampax still in its wrapper, the stuffed snake and tiger Robin had had since before she went to school, a collage of pictures of her cat Sausage, who had been run over two years ago. Red and blue ribbons that she had won for jumping, or running, or throwing basketballs.
“You answer me!” said Trudy. “You tell me why you did it!”
She threw the jug. But it was heavier than she’d thought, or else at the very moment of throwing it she lost conviction, because it didn’t hit the wall, it fell on the rug beside the dresser, it rolled on the floor, undamaged.
You threw a jug at me that time. You could have killed me.
Not at you. I didn’t throw it at you.
You could have killed me.
Proof that Robin was shamming:
She started up in a fright, but it wasn’t the blank fright of somebody who’d been asleep. She looked scared, but underneath that childish scared look was another look—stubborn, calculating, disdainful.
“It was so beautiful. And it was valuable. It belonged to your grandmother.”
“I thought it belonged to me,” said Robin.
“That girl wasn’t even your friend. Christ, you didn’t have a good word to say for her, this morning.”
“You don’t know who is my friend!” Robin’s face flushed a bright pink and her eyes filled with tears, but her scornful, stubborn expression didn’t change. “I knew her. I talked to her. So get out!”
Trudy works at the Home for Mentally Handicapped Adults. Few people call it that. Older people in town still say, the Misses Weirs’ house, and a number of others, including Robin, and presumably most of those her age, called it the Halfwit House.
The house has a ramp now, for wheelchairs, because some of the mentally handicapped may be physically handicapped as well, and it has a swimming pool in the back yard, which caused a certain amount of discussion, when it was installed at taxpayers’ expense. Otherwise the house looks pretty much the way it always did —the white wooden walls, the dark-green curlicues on the gables, the steep roof and dark, screened side porch, and the deep lawn in front shaded by soft maple trees.
This month Trudy works the four to midnight shift. Yesterday afternoon she parked her car in front and walked up the drive thinking how nice the house looked, peaceful, as in the days of the Misses Weir, who must have served iced tea and read library books, or played croquet, whatever people did then.
Always some piece of news, some wrangle or excitement, once you get inside.
The men came to fix the pool but they didn’t fix it, they went away again. It isn’t fixed yet.
“We don’t get no use of it, soon summer be over,” Josephine said.
“It’s not even the middle of June, you’re saying summer’ll be over,” Kelvin said, “You think before you talk. Did you hear about the young girl that was killed, out in the country?” he said to Trudy.
Trudy had started to mix two batches of frozen lemonade, one pink and one plain. When he said that she smashed the spoon down on the frozen chunk so hard that some of the liquid spilled over.
She was afraid she would hear that a girl was dragged off a country road, raped in the woods, strangled, beaten, left there. Robin goes running along the country roads, in her white shorts and t-shirt, a head-band on her Hying hair. Robin’s hair is golden, her legs and arms are golden. Her cheeks and limbs are downy, not shiny—you wouldn’t be surprised to see a cloud of pollen delicately floating and settling behind her, when she runs. Cars hoot at her and she isn’t bothered. Foul threats are yelled at her, and she yells foul threats back.
“Driving a truck,” Kelvin said.
Trudy’s heart eased. Robin didn’t know how to drive yet.
“Fourteen years old, she didn’t know how to drive,” Kelvin said. “She got in the truck and the first thing you know, she ran it into a tree. Where was her parents, that’s what I’d like to know? They weren’t watching out for her. She got in the truck when she didn’t know how to drive and ran it into a tree. Fourteen. That’s too young.”
Kelvin goes uptown by himself, he hears all the news. He is fifty-two years old, still slim and boyish-looking, well-shaved, with soft, short, clean, dark hair. He goes to the barbershop every day, because he can’t quite manage to shave himself. Epilepsy, then surgery, an infected bone-flap, many more operations, a permanent mild difficulty with feet and fingers, a gentle head-fog. The fog doesn’t obscure facts, just motives. Perhaps he shouldn’t be in the Home at all, but where else? Anyway, he likes it. He says he likes it. He tells the others they shouldn’t complain, they should be more grateful, they should behave themselves. He picks up the soft drink cans, or beer bottles, that people have thrown into the front yard—though of course it isn’t his job, to do that.
When Janet came in just before midnight, to relieve Trudy, she had the same story to tell.
“I guess you heard about that fifteen-year-old girl?”
When Janet starts telling you something like this, she always starts off with “I guess you heard.” I guess you heard Wilma and Ted are breaking up., she says. I guess you heard Alvin Stead had a heart attack.
“Kelvin told me,” Trudy said. “Only he said she was fourteen.”
“Fifteen,” Janet said. “She must’ve been in Robin’s class at school. She didn’t know how to drive. She didn’t even get out of the lane.”
“Was she drunk?” said Trudy. Robin won’t go near alcohol, or dope, or cigarettes, or even coffee, she’s so fanatical about what she puts into her body.
“I don’t think so. Stoned, maybe. It was early in the evening. She was home with her sister, their parents were out. Her sister’s boyfriend came over, it was his truck, and he either gave her the keys to the truck or she took them. You hear different versions. You hear that they sent her out for something, they wanted to get rid of her, and you hear she just took the keys and went.
Anyway she ran it right into a tree, in the lane.”
“Jesus,” said Trudy.
“I know. It’s so idiotic. It’s getting so you hate to think about your kids growing up. Did they all take their medication okay? What’s Kelvin watching?”
Kelvin was still up, sitting in the living room watching TV.
“It’s somebody being interviewed. He wrote a book about schizophrenics.”
Anything he comes across about mental problems, Kelvin has to watch, or try to read.
“I think it depresses him, the more he watches that kind of thing. Do you know I found out today I have to make five hundred roses out of pink Kleenex, for my niece Laurel’s wedding? For the car. She said, you promised you’d make the roses for the car. Well I didn’t. I don’t remember promising a thing. Are you going to come over and help me?”
“Sure,” said Trudy.
“I guess the real reason I want him to get off the schizophrenics is, I want to watch the old Dallas” Janet said. She and Trudy disagree about this. Trudy can’t stand to watch those old reruns of Dallas., to see the characters with their younger, plumper, faces, going through tribulations and bound up in romantic complications they and the audience have now forgotten all about. That’s what’s so hilarious, Janet says, it’s so unbelievable it’s wonderful. All that happens and they just forget about it and go on. But to Trudy it doesn’t seem so unbelievable, that the characters would go from one thing to the next thing— forgetful, hopeful, photogenic, forever changing their clothes. That it’s not so unbelievable, is what she really can’t stand.
Robin, the next morning, said, “Oh, probably. All those people she hung around with drink. They party all the time. They’re self-destructive. It’s her own fault. Even if her sister told her to go she didn’t have to go. She didn’t have to be so stupid.”
“What was her name?” Trudy said.
“Tracy Lee,” said Robin with distaste. She stepped on the pedal of the garbage-tin, lifted rather than lowered the container of yogurt she had just emptied, and dropped it in. She was wearing bikini underpants and a t-shirt that said, “If I Want to Listen to an Asshole, I’ll Fart.”
“That shirt still bothers me,” Trudy said. “Some things are disgusting but funny, and some things are more disgusting than funny.”
“What’s the problem?” said Robin. “I sleep alone.”
Trudy sat outside, in her wrapper, drinking coffee, while the day got hot. There is a little brick-paved space by the side door, that she and Dan always called the patio. She sat there. This is a solar-heated house, with big panels of glass in the south sloping roof, the oddest-looking house in town. It’s odd inside, too, with the open shelves in the kitchen, instead of cupboards, and the living room up some stairs, looking out over the fields at the back. She and Dan, for a joke, gave parts of it the most conventional, suburban-sounding names—the patio, the powder room, the master bedroom. Dan always had to joke about the way he was living. He built the house himself— Trudy did a lot of the painting, and staining—and it was a success. Rain didn’t leak in around the panels, and part of the house’s heat really did come from the sun. Most people who have the ideas, or ideals, that Dan has, aren’t very practical. They can’t fix things, or make things, they don’t understand wiring, or carpentry, or whatever it is they need to understand. Dan is good at everything—at gardening, cutting wood, building a house. He is especially good at repairing motors. He used to travel around, getting jobs as an auto mechanic, a small engines repairman. That’s how he ended up here. He came here to visit Marlene, got a job as a mechanic, became a working partner in an auto repair business, and before he knew it— married to Trudy, not Marlene —he was a small-town businessman, a member of the Kinsmen. All without shaving off his sixties beard or trimming his hair any more than he wanted to. The town was too small, Dan was too smart, for that to be necessary.
Now Dan lives in a townhouse in Richmond Hill, with a girl named Genevieve. She is studying law. She was married when she was very young, and had three little children. Dan met her three years ago, when her camper broke down a few miles outside of town. He told Trudy about her, that night. The rented camper, the three little children, hardly more than babies, the lively little divorced mother with her hair in pigtails. Her bravery, her poverty, her plans to enter law school. If the camper hadn’t been easily fixed, he was going to invite her and her children to spend the night. She was on her way to her parents’ summer place at Pointe du Baril.
“Then she can’t be all that poor,” Trudy said.
“You can be poor and have rich parents,” Dan said.
“No you can’t.”
Last summer, Robin went to Richmond Hill for a month’s visit. She came home early. She said it was a madhouse. The oldest child has to go to a special reading clinic, the middle one wets the bed. Genevieve spends all her time in the Law Library, studying. No wonder. Dan shops for bargains, cooks, looks after the children, grows vegetables, drives a taxi on Saturdays and Sundays. He wants to set up a motorcycle repair business in the garage, but he can’t get a permit, the neighbors are against it.
He told Robin he was happy. Never happier, he said. Robin came home firmly grown-up—severe, sarcastic, determined. She had some slight, steady, grudge she hadn’t had before. Trudy couldn’t worm it out of her, couldn’t tease it out of her—the time when she could do that was over.
Robin came home at noon and changed her clothes. She put on a light, flowered cotton blouse and ironed a pale blue cotton skirt.
She said that some of the girls from the class might be going around to the Funeral Home, after school.
“I forgot you had that skirt,” said Trudy.
If she thought that was going to start a conversation, she was mistaken.
The first time Trudy met Dan, she was drunk. She was nineteen years old, tall and skinny—as she still is—with a wild head of curly black hair (it is cropped short now and showing the grey as black hair does). She was very tanned, wearing jeans and a tie-dyed t-shirt. No brassiere and no need. This was in Muskoka, in August, in a hotel bar where they had a band. She was camping, with girlfriends. He was there with his fiancee, Marlene. He had taken Marlene home to meet his mother, who lived in Muskoka, on an island, in an empty hotel. When Trudy was nineteen, he was twenty-eight. She danced around by herself, giddy and drunk, in front of the table where he sat with Marlene, a meek-looking blonde with a big pink shelf of bosom all embroidered in little fake pearls. Trudy just danced in front of him until he got up and joined her. At the end of the dance he asked her name, and took her back and introduced her to Marlene.
“This is Judy,” he said. Trudy collapsed, laughing, into the chair beside Marlene’s. Dan took Marlene up to dance. Trudy finished off Marlene’s beer and went looking for her friends.
“How do you do?” she said to them. “I’m Judy!”
He caught up with her at the door of the bar. He had ditched Marlene when he saw Trudy leaving. A man who could change course quickly, see the possibilities, flare up with new enthusiasm. He told people later that he was in love with Trudy before he even knew her real name. But he told Trudy that he cried, when he and Marlene were parting.
“I have feelings,” he said. “I’m not ashamed to show them.”
Trudy had no feelings for Marlene at all. Marlene was over thirty, what could she expect? Marlene still lives in town, works at the Hydro office, is not married. When Trudy and Dan were having one of their conversations about Genevieve, Trudy said,
“Marlene must be thinking I got what’s coming to me.”
Dan said he had heard that Marlene had joined the Fellowship of Bible Christians. The women weren’t allowed make-up and had to wear a kind of bonnet to church on Sundays.
“She won’t be able to have a thought in her head, but for-giving.”
Trudy said, “I bet.”
This is what happened at the Funeral Home, as Trudy got the story from both Kelvin and Janet:
The girls from Tracy Lee’s class all showed up together, after school. This was during what was called the visitation, when the family waited beside Tracy Lee’s open casket, to receive friends. Her parents were there, her married brother and his wife, her sister, and even her sister’s boyfriend, who owned the truck. They stood in a row and people lined up to say a few words to them. A lot of people came. They always do, in a case like this. Tracy Lee’s grandmother was at the end of the row, in a brocade-covered chair. She wasn’t able to stand up for very long.
All the chairs at the Funeral Home are upholstered in this white and gold brocade. The curtains are the same, the wallpaper almost matches. There are little wall-bracket lights behind heavy pink glass. Trudy has been there, several times, she knows what it’s like. But Robin, and most of these girls, had never been inside the place before. They didn’t know what to expect. Some of them began to cry as soon as they got inside the door.
The curtains were closed. Soft music was playing, not exactly church music but it sounded like it. Tracy Lee’s coffin was white, with a gold trim, matching all the brocade and the wallpaper. It had a lining of pleated pink satin. A pink satin pillow. Tracy Lee had not a mark on her face. She was not made up quite as usual, because the undertaker had done it. But she was wearing her favorite earrings, turquoise-colored triangles and yellow crescents, two to each ear. (Some people thought that was in bad taste.) On the part of the coffin that covered her from the waist down there was a big heart-shaped pillow of pink roses.
The girls lined up to speak to the family. They shook hands, they said sorry-for-your-loss, just the way everybody else did. When they got through that, when all of them had let the grandmother squash their cool hands between her warm, swollen, freckled ones, they lined up again, in a straggling sort of way, and began to go past the coffin. Many were crying now, shivering. What could you expect? Young girls.
But they began to sing as they went past. With difficulty at first, shyly, but with growing confidence in their sad, sweet, voices, they sang.