Red White Blue

a short story by Mary W. Walters. Originally broadcast on CBC Saskatchewan

A week or so after bin Laden’s henchmen took down the Twin Towers, my boyfriend started in on a bunch of chores he said he’d been meaning to do for years. He had a couple more weeks off work and he’d been thinking Cuba, but nobody was flying anywhere at that point. Not for the fun of it, at least.

First he replaced the light fixture in his dining room – it involved dozens of lozenges of pearlized glass and reminded me of one of those so-called money trees; he said he’d picked it up in Chicago just after his divorce, and never really liked it – and he put back the chandelier that had been there when he bought the condo. Then he installed a new refrigerator/freezer, with a recessed dispenser in the door where you could get ice for your drink any time of the day or night: crushed or cubed, your choice.

After that we went back up to his cottage in Muskoka, and he got out hammer and nails, a power saw and some lumber that was already the colour of pewter it was so old, and he went to work replacing boards on the dock that he and his then-wife-now-ex and kids had probably started trying not to fall through while I was still in high school.

I volunteered to sand the boards. He agreed, somewhat reluctantly. It would have been fine with him if I’d spent the whole time reading People magazine and sunbathing on the rocks, preferably within earshot of CNN so he didn’t have to keep running up to the cottage every half hour to check on the news himself, and also preferably in my nearly non-existent bathing suit because he liked to look at me when I was wearing it. I could understand why he liked to look at me: I’d seen some pictures of his ex-wife. It wasn’t that she was so bad looking, but she was old enough to be my mother.

My actual mother had been telling me for months that he treated me like I was some kind of Barbie doll or floozy: all boobs and legs, no brain. I’d been telling her it was nice to be pampered for a change, and she said find someone your own age to pamper you in that case, and I said none of them can afford it, trust me, plus the guys I know my age will never amount to anything and I refuse to end up with anyone like that. It wasn’t too kind of me to put it that way in light of what had happened to my dad’s career, but as far as my mother was concerned (and it might have been because of Dad, who knows?) no one was ever good enough for me. I was getting tired of it.

“If you settle down with a man that age, you’ll be sorry,” she’d said a while ago. “He’ll be set in his ways, and he won’t want any fancy ideas out of you. You can trust me on that one.”

But when I called her from the lake, it sounded like her tune had changed.

I asked her if she didn’t find it strange the way a date on the calendar was becoming a phrase that was being used to describe the dividing line between when there really might have been world peace some day, and when it was no longer a possibility. I figured there should have been a brand-new word to describe an event of that magnitude, not just two numbers strung together.

I expected her to make a dig before she answered—“Careful, dear. Don’t let your sugar daddy catch you dabbling in abstracts,” or something to that effect. But it was as though she hadn’t even heard me. She wanted to know if there were smoke detectors in our cabin up there in Muskoka, life preservers in our boat, clear skies above our lake. She said she couldn’t sleep for worrying about my brother, who was a baggage handler at the airport in Toronto; as far as I knew, that was the first time since he was in junior high that she’d worried about him. Then she asked if I’d give her the phone number I was at, up there at the lake. Only after getting through her little list of personal concerns did she reply to what I’d said.

“The Fifties are over,” was the way she put it, and I could almost hear her nodding. “That does seem to be the truth.”

I stood in water to my waist sanding the new boards and the old ones my boyfriend had decided were strong enough to keep. He worked ahead of me, crouching on the dock as he measured and fitted and hammered. As I moved along behind him, I saw the hairs on his hard tanned legs glint grey and gold in the sunlight that was licking off the crests of the little waves and making them go flashing all around us. Occasionally he glanced back at me, and not even to check out the place where my breasts showed over the top of my bathing-suit bra, but only to make sure I wasn’t missing any spots with the sander. I think it made him uneasy not to be doing it all himself but I was no slacker either, and as we neared the end, the dock looked as solid as if it were brand new.

My mother needn’t have worried about threats from the sky out there that week: it was brilliant the whole time, white and blue, and the water sapphire on indigo. I kept inhaling the sweetness of the air and noticing how clean the insides of my lungs felt.

It was very quiet out there on the lake. Most of the families had gone home the way my boyfriend’s kids had done, taking their children back to the city and to school. It was a relief not to have them anywhere around, especially not his daughter, who was about as keen on me as my mother was on him.

After we’d finished and stained the boards, my boyfriend extended one of the dock’s metal supports with a ten-foot pole and put a flag on it. He’d never before been so happy to be a Canadian, he said, and he held me tight against him with some emotion that was even bigger than the love he felt for me. Then he went back inside to watch the news at noon, leaving the silky red and white to flap over the bright blue water.

By the time we went back to the city, he’d sunk a proper flagpole into concrete closer to the road. He’d replaced a downspout on the cottage eavestrough, and we’d put a coat of white paint on the boat-house doors and trim. On the last night up there, he asked me if I’d marry him. I’d have said yes in an instant the day we had arrived, and then spent years spinning possibilities out from that proposal—creating a line that I could have used to snap at the ankles of my mother’s assumptions and presumptions.

But the luxury of time to inch across that landscape, generation by generation, was behind us. The vacuum that had been created by those two towers telescoping down into the ground was sucking the United States right into it, and it was creating a void into which the rest of the world was beginning to slip as well. I’d need to have my arms free and my wits about me so I could grab at projecting branches or bits of rebar that I might catch sight of as I went tumbling along. It would be each person for herself. So I had to tell him no.

Last Respects

(First published in Grain Magazine, Volume IX, No 1, February, 1981)

This house is not so silent as it seemed when I sat down here on the chesterfield a little while ago. Aunt Isabel is resting in her room at the end of the hall, but I can hear the squeak of the springs in her bed and from time to time a sort of strangled sigh, the last muffled remnants of her weeping. The small white refrigerator in the kitchen stutters into silence for just long enough that I forget it, then gurgles back to life again. I have never been so irritated by such tiny sounds.

My book lies open in my lap. My eyes move across the lines until some bit of punctuation stops me and I realize that I haven’t understood a single word. Last night, it wasn’t until Aunt Isabel had called three times for me to turn out my light that I at last unwillingly slid the marker between these pages and, cursing her silently, set it on the small blue table by my bed. How I want to be drawn back into the power of these words, but I can’t. The details of this house, this room, refuse to let me be.

Aunt Isabel’s broadloom is the colour of uncut grass and the velvet of her chairs and chesterfield is almost the same deep green. The other furniture is all very old, and the wood seems to glow somewhere just beneath the surface. No dust would dare to settle on these pieces, and the laundry is never spilled out on the couch to be sorted, as it is at home.

The house is too big for one person. Aunt Isabel says so herself. When Uncle William was still alive she’d say, “You know, this house is really too big for two.” She was right then, too, but I don’t imagine she’ll ever move now. The house reminds her of William, she says. Funny. You’d think she’d want to move away from all of that, to forget.

The doorbell rings and as I stand my book slides onto the carpet with a thump.

“Would you get that, Emmie?” calls Aunt Isabel. She’s making little grunts as she bends to squeeze her swollen feet into her tiny shoes. Aunt Isabel would never receive visitors in her bedroom slippers, as my mother sometimes does.

I retrieve my book and start toward the hallway. Aunt Isabel is right behind me as I pull open the big oak door and unlock the screen.

It’s Dr. Watson, his white hair shining under the light, one thin hand waving away the moths that are batting themselves against the bulb. He ducks his head a little as he comes through the doorway, a gesture I’ve often wondered at because although he’s a tall man, the top of his head is several inches from the door frame. Maybe he used to be taller.

He is immaculately dressed, as usual, in a deep grey pinstripe suite, a maroon tie with tiny white dots knotted carefully over a starched white shirt. A thin gold tie-clip is his only jewellery.

My mother told me once when I asked her that he was almost sixty and that, no, he’d never married, although she wasn’t sure what business that was of mine.

“George,” says Aunt Isabel. “How kind of you to come.” She smiles the grim little smile she was wearing for me when she returned from the hospital at noon.

“She was a fine woman, Isabel,” he says, and then he catches both my hands in his before I can move away. His blue eyes are moist behind his thick glasses. Please, God, don’t let him cry.

“I am so sorry, Emmie,” he says.

I nod, and hope my smile is less tight than my aunt’s. I don’t like it here, standing between them. I can smell her heavy, expensive perfume, and the air in this small wood-paneled vestibule is growing sickly sweet and hot.

“Would you like some tea?” I ask.

“Perhaps a brandy for the doctor, Em,” Aunt Isabel says. “And pour a tiny sherry for me.”

The kitchen, where Aunt Isabel keeps her small supply of liquor in a lower cupboard, is a brighter and less cluttered room than the others in her house. The walls and ceiling have recently been painted white and the pale green floor and marbled countertops gleam under the coil of fluorescent light. I close the swinging door behind me and walk over to the window. I press my nose against the screen, wanting to inhale some of the cool darkness of the August night, but I can smell only the dust and metal of the screen itself. Somewhere out there in that night is Scott, perhaps already dressed and standing at his window, waiting until it’s time to come for me. I rub my hand across my nose in case the screen has left a mark, and turn to get the drinks.

There is a heavy rosewood cabinet with five glass doors against one wall. Anyone else would have put a table there, but Aunt Isabel always east in the dining room, always uses silver and china and linen table napkins, even when she is alone.

When I was smaller and my mother brought me here to visit, I would sit on the high white stool near the sink and listen to my mother and her sister talk as they peeled carrots and potatoes, sliced onions, shelled peas. My mother began to cry one day when Aunt Isabel mentioned my father’s name. Mother said it was the onions that made her weep and I couldn’t see how they could be sad about someone who’d been dead for as long as I could remember, but even then I was uncomfortable with adult tears no matter what their provocation. And I looked away from them, at the rows and rows of polished glass and crystal in the rosewood cabinet. There were little glass animals in there too, blown glass my mother told me, very fragile. I wished that I could take out some of the shining pieces myself to look at them more closely, but I knew better than to ask.

Now, for the first time, I am permitted, unsupervised, to open the glass doors. The tiny swans and the giraffe are no longer of interest to me, and I take out a short, full-bellied glass for the brandy, and a taller one with a stem for Aunt Isabel.

She’s probably crying again. I wonder whether she’s being held by Dr. Watson. I try to imagine that, him so tall and thin with his long awkward arms around her short plump body, her thick grey hair against the charcoal of his suit. I cant imagine it, and I don’t want to see it. Slowly, very slowly, I carry the glasses to the counter, walking on tiptoe so they won’t remember that I’m here.

I’m glad Dr. Watson didn’t try to hug me. Aunt Isabel did, when she told me, and I wanted to break away and run from her warm thickness, her misery, which I can’t lessen or share.

There used to be more bottles in this cupboard when Uncle William was alive. I read the label on each one as I take it out and place it on the counter beside the glasses. The brandy bottle is tall and made of smoked green glass, and another says “Harvey’s Bristol Cream.” Sherry. I wonder if its taste is as warm and smooth as its name. The other bottles I place back on the shelf, making a game of it, trying not to make a sound.

I do not know the taste of brandy or sherry. My mother doesn’t approve of children “taking spirits.” I do, however, know the taste of rye whiskey and gin, and I’m not fond of either of them. In an hour, Scott and Ted and the others will bring their bottles of Coke and Orange Crush, already mixed with liquor, to Wanda’s party. They will have replaced the metal bottle caps carefully, so Mr. and Mrs. Collier will not suspect. And I will have a drink then, enough that Scott can smell it on my breath, and after that I will tip back the bottle against my lips when they pass it to me, and pretend. Perhaps if they brought Harvey’s Bristol Cream, I would do better.

There will be music, too, at Wanda’s party and we will dance, fast dances at the beginning, then slow ones later on, when Wanda thinks her parents are asleep. Someone, Ted perhaps, will turn off the lights and under the camouflage of the Ventures, there will be whispering and some rustling of clothes and Wanda will squeal, “No, Ted!” more to let us know he’s trying something than to stop him. Scott’s mouth will be pressed close and hard against mine, and the air will be electric with excitement edged with the fear that Wanda’s parents might not really be asleep at all.

Scott will be here, at the front door, in less than an hour.

The front door squeaks open and I stop what I’m doing to listen. It’s Mrs. MacNeill, my aunt’s chattering little neighbour. Isabel’s greeting sounds controlled enough, and I carry the two glasses through the darkened dining room and into the living room.

“Oh, Emmie, you poor dear,” cries Mrs. MacNeill. My aunt and Dr. Watson are standing at the far end of the room and the birdlike neighbour is hurrying across the room, her arms open. I hold the glasses in front of me so that she can’t come closer without spilling them.

“Your mother was such a wonderful woman. But this is best for her. You understand that, don’t you?” Her voice is hoarse and tragic, her hands now clasped together in front of her. “Her pain is over.”

“Can I get you some sherry?” I ask.

She shakes her head slowly, her eyes wide with disbelief, then turns to Isabel, who shrugs.

I hand the brandy to the doctor and the sherry to my aunt. Suddenly it seems very dark and small in here, and I look for a light to turn on. But all the lamps are glowing brightly.

Mrs. MacNeill sits on the opposite end of the dark green couch from Dr. Watson. Her hands pull at a Kleenex in her lap, and she looks at the doctor intently as she speaks.

“I’m so glad you’re here, Doctor. For the sake of poor Isabel. And dear Emmie, of course. I was afraid they might have been alone. People shouldn’t be alone at a time like this. Companionship. That’s the best medicine for grief, I always say.”

She looks over at my aunt, who nods.

“I would have been here earlier myself,” Mrs. MacNeill continues, “but I just couldn’t leave my Ben. His ulcer’s really acting up these days. His doctor says bicarbonate of soda, but it doesn’t seem to help a bit. I guess you know all about ulcers, don’t you, Doctor? They’re very hard to manage.”

On and on she prattles, and Dr. Watson’s face is turned toward her but I can tell from his eyes that he’s not listening.

He has twisted his feet around one another until his legs are wrapped from the knees down, exposing white, hairless flesh above his grey socks. Dr. Watson is the only person I’ve ever met who could do that, and it fascinates me. When he came to visit us at home, when my mother was still able to sit up in the living room for a while, I would watch him wrap and unwrap his legs, wishing I were out instead with Scott. And then, after I’d done the dishes and turned out the hall light, I’d sit on the edge of my bed and try to twist my feet like that. I couldn’t do it. Even if I’d been able to, I couldn’t have shown anyone. Mother dislikes me making fun of adults.

I haven’t see Dr. Watson in several weeks. He visited every Wednesday and Sunday evening when my mother was still at home. He used to walk right into her bedroom and take her pulse and blood pressure, and then he’d help her into the living room where they had tea and the store-bought coffee cake my mother sent me out for. They talked, about the government and the Bay of Pigs and other things I didn’t know or care about. The way Dr. Watson looked at my mother with such pity and tenderness usually drove me to my homework. Later, he helped her back to bed and she was very slow and thin as she leaned against his arm.

It was Dr. Watson who called the ambulance the day she could no longer stand even with assistance, and Dr. Watson who drove me to Aunt Isabel’s and told me in the car that my mother had inoperable cancer. He told me very gently what that meant. I didn’t believe him.

Aunt Isabel sits in Uncle William’s armchair, her head against the antimacassar on the headrest, her hand tight around the lace-edged handkerchief in her lap. I doubt she’s ever used a Kleenex.

I would like to go back to the kitchen or to my room, but I must tell them I’m going out, somehow, when the right moment comes along. And so I sit on the needlepoint footstool near the dining room, as far from their pale and thinly disguised sadness as I can get. Aunt Isabel’s curtains, I notice, have a thick layer of dust across the top of them. Perhaps she can’t reach that high, to dust them or to get them down. Perhaps she hasn’t noticed. It surprises me: it’s so unlike her.

“I suppose it’s too early to think of arrangements,” says Mrs. MacNeill. Dr. Watson sits up suddenly and looks around him the way my grandmother used to do when the sermon was over.

“Geoff can’t be here until Thursday,” says Aunt Isabel.

My mother’s brother lives in Vancouver and has never in his life done anything in a hurry.

“So will it be Thursday or Friday, do you think?” Mrs. MacNeill asks. I’m certain she won’t let up until she has an answer.

“I really don’t know yet. Friday, I guess. I’ll have to call Forrester’s in the morning.” Aunt Isabel looks as though she may begin to weep again.

I stand up to turn on a light, and then remember that they are all on. They look at me. I look at my watch and sit down again. Fifteen minutes.

Mrs. MacNeill clears her throat. “Well, now, Isabel. I don’t want you to worry about anything. I’ll start on the sandwiches and things for after the… for Friday. I can handle the whole thing.” She begins a list of fillings she’ll prepare for the sandwiches – egg and tuna and roast beef – but Aunt Isabel interrupts to offer her a cup of tea. Aunt Isabel sounds tired, but Mrs. MacNeill accepts immediately and leans back into the corner of the couch.

And then she asks my aunt what it was like, “For Edith, at the end.”

I can’t believe her question, don’t even understand it for a moment. But Aunt Isabel doesn’t take offense, seems almost relieved to have been asked. Before she can say a word, I just to my feet.

“Scott’s coming for me in a little while. I’m going out. I’ll make the tea.”

“Tonight?” Aunt Isabel asks. “You’re going out tonight?”

I don’t answer. I run into the kitchen, wishing the door would slam instead of swinging so slowly back and forth.

I can breathe more easily here, don’t feel so trapped and suffocated. I touch the school ring on my left hand for reassurance, touch the heavy roll of adhesive tape on the inside. At last the tape is grey and dirty. Some girls, like Wanda, can’t hang onto a ring for long enough for that to happen. But Scott and I are different. He’s older than the others in our class, and this ring means more to us than it would to Wanda or Ted.

When I’m with him, I’m free of all of this. When we’re together, there’s just his hand around mine, the clean smell of his shirt against my face. With him, there’s a promise for the future that none of these adults can take away or spoil.

The kitchen door squeaks open and Dr. Watson comes in. I take down the teapot and rinse it with boiling water, not looking at him.

“Emmie?”

“Yes, Sir?”

“I’ve known your family a long time. Longer than you can remember, I’ve no doubt. I know you feel very alone right now, and I want to tell you that I share your grief. I loved your mother very much.”

Oh, God, no. Don’t tell me this. I don’t want to hear it, and I don’t want to see you cry.

I hear the crunch of tires on the gravel outside and I turn in relief from Dr. Watson.

“See you later!” I call, as I run past the living room and out of the front door.

The air is cool against my face and I inhale it deeply. It smells so good out here—like freshly cut grass—as though the night air has been scented for my pleasure. The breeze stirs the oak trees at the edge of the park and I look up at them, and up again, and the sky has never seemed so vast, so alive with winking points of light.

 

[Get Copyright Permissions] Click here for copyright permissions!
Copyright 2009 Mary W. Walters