Editor's note: We're not the only ones who found this story exceptional. Lee Kvern went on to win the Alberta Literary Award on May 25, 2013 for this story. Congratulations Lee! A double winner.
My father, three sheets to the wind, floats in the front door of our house. With him the hot July breeze, the yeasty after stench of the Airliner Hotel on Edmonton Trail; flowing beer, the darkened lounge in the daylight hours, worn out chairs and waitresses alike clothed in a murky crimson, the standard patrons mostly stray men, a few divorced women. Crown Royal served up like its name: sharp, golden, privileged to the off-duty RCMP like my father who also gathered there. Circa 1973 the same year my father is diagnosed, the kind of cancer that devours you from the inside out, like how a pear ripens slowly and you don't notice until the dark bruises appear on his yellowing skin.
"Look who's here," my father says to my mother at the front door, motioning behind him.
My mother doesn't look beyond his pseudo sober face, she's engaged in determining the velocity of my father's stinking Crown Royal breeze; not even the rank, diversionary cloud of his El Producto cigar that he waves in the familial air of our house deters her. My mother's Young and Restless (Hung and Breastless, she calls it) blares on the television in the sitting room, her Peel-a-Pound soup wafts cayenne cabbage smells from the kitchen; my father's eyes dark, glassine on this Wednesday afternoon.
Past him are two men in disheveled suits; white shirts open to their sternums. Behind them: two extraordinarily tall women, exotic in a transvestite sort of way, heavily made-up, Marilyn Monroe blonde hair, legs that go forever beneath micro-mini skirts, unfettered breasts, globular, no doubt the real thing by the faint pink of their nipples beneath their silk-sheer blouses, dressed identical like that ABC laundry detergent advertisement: I can't tell the difference, can you tell the difference?
My mother's face can tell the difference.
The dark jasmine scent of expensive perfume, these women not from the economical Airliner Lounge, but uptown, downtown, somewhere other than our neighborhood, their heady splendor as they tower over the two men, my father, my mother in her full-to-the-floor, multi-coloured Kaftan in a brazen African motif that my teenaged sister and I picked out for her on Mother's Day — so that when worst-came-to-worst, when life-came-to-shove, in the pinch-of-my-father's death, she could camp in it.
"Dick," my mother says, offers her hand.
Dick blows a raspberry on it. She wipes her hand off on her African tent. The other man stands in the doorway swaying, waiting to be introduced to my mother, my sister and I. My youngest sister Evie, while not present, is evident in the shrill/kill of her semi-terrified screams as she torments the neighbour's Bullmastiff through our chain link fence.
"Ken Gorbi," my father announces, like he's Monty Hall on Let's Make A Deal. The object of his extravagance: a six-foot-something man. Hard to believe the women could tower over him until you looked down and saw the precarious stiletto of their high heels. The man's face nicely russet, early forties, not overly good-looking but his chest and abdomen so evidently taut, fit beneath his unbuttoned shirt like a trophy athlete, a slight smirk on his first-rate mouth, no doubt the real deal my father found at the Airliner Lounge.
My father waits for my mother to respond; she stares at him as if he's Monty Hall's goat, the donkey, the zonk prize behind Curtain Number Three. My father ignores her, welcomes them in with a swoop of his arm into the cool dark of our living room, the curtains drawn tight to keep out the record-breaking July heat.
"Sit, sit," says my father.
He slides into the scratchy green chair across from our sofa, the synthetic fabric looped in so many tiny razors that cleave into your exposed skin like finely honed tools of torture. The same torturer's chair I find myself in two years from now when I confess to my father's yellowing face, my mother's slumped shoulders that I dropped acid and that the paper towel machine at the China Night Restaurant on Centre Street knows how to eat itself.
The men, the artificial women drop four abreast onto our lengthy sofa, as big as a yacht! my mother exclaimed when they found it in the discount section at the Brick, so cheap it was like an inheritance. Although now the sofa's ends are ripped open revealing substandard foam and cheap wood laid bare by Lucinda the Siamese fighting cat we also inherited along with the neighborhood. My mother goes into the sitting room, watches The Young and Restless a moment before she turns it off, then comes back, drops cross-legged on the floor, not unlike Lucinda squared up on our green-swirl carpet like a protective sphinx eyeballing the strangers on our irregular-patterned sofa. My older sister perches on the arm of the sofa; the pole lamp and I stand in the corner.
We gaze at the tour of them: my father's RCMP friend Dick Tick. Not so different from the wingless bloodsucking insect that lives on the skin of humans, says my mother. Ken Gorbi and the no-name women that no one bothers to introduce, their hard, professional eyes—though my father introduces the cat. The women pull at their micro-skirts, the red satin sheen of their XXX underwear visible, and beneath that the dark pitch of their not-so-Marilyn pubic hair. My father careful to maintain his skating eyes above the belt. My sister and I try not to gawk. My mother's face like the cat's when she has to lick her nether regions.
"Ken Gorbi," my father says, exhales a raunchy cloud of cigar smoke that hangs in the air like despondent cotton candy, "is the Guinness Book World Record Holder for the longest baseball throw from outfield to home base."
Ken Gorgeous, I think. I look at my sister; she's removed her eyes from the women and is involved in the self-examination of her teenage breasts beneath her white tee. Prelude to the future when she will grow her own competent set of breasts, move to the east coast, grow increasingly private, and we'll miss her terribly.
"Four hundred and forty-five feet, ten inches. A record he still holds today," my father's eyes a dark sheen.
He waves his hand, clears the circus of smoke from above his head. Ken smiles, his extraordinary lean, fit body seated before us like a man whose future is written in indelible ink. My father glances at my sister and I for the impressiveness on our faces. I widen my eyes slightly; my sister mortified with the dimpled turkey skin on the top of her thighs ignores him. My mother smiles at Ken Gorbi.
Then turns her flinty gaze on Dick-the-Human-Tick, her smile dropping like acid. Dick, RCMP like my father, father of three children, married to a congenial but meager-legged woman named Janet. Dick avoids my mother's gaze, tries to make eye contact with my father, who is avoiding both him and my mother altogether. Difficult to tell where the best alliance lives in this moment. Somewhere between my father's rock and my mother's hard pitch. No Monty Hall deals to be made here.
All of us watch transfixed, captivated as if by car crash as Ken Gorbi's rented date kicks her black patent heels off on our green swirl carpet, crosses her go-forever legs, then squeezes into Ken's side; the parade of her cleavage a limitless tour. The enormity of her globular breasts sprawled out on the immensity of Ken's world record pitching arm. My father doesn't know where to put his eyes; he glances wildly around the room. I study the psychedelic vortex of the carpet, preamble to the paper towel machine at the China Night Restaurant. My sister worries the stress sty developing on her left eye. No one/place seems safe for anyone.
All of us watch Ken Gorbi reach across her remarkable breasts and grasp the delicate pearl button between his expert baseball fingers, pulling the deep plunging thrill/frill of her silk blouse together and fastening it. The woman smiles tolerantly, her teeth so straight, so white, so college perfect; I wonder how it got to this? Ken Gorbi flushes, the woman doesn't. Dick, my-father's-tick, winks at my father as if to say, you see, now you see? For what will come later, after the Wednesday daylight tea in the declining suburbs.
My mother's face the colour of rutabagas, my sister and I horrified at the mere suggestion of sex/parts/parents in the same room. My father's eyes fixed on the cat sprawled out on the floor, her back legs splayed wide, the lewd, delicate pink of her anus in full view as she toys with the black leather straps of the woman's discarded shoes.
"Coffee?" my father asks.
He tries to rise from his green torture chair, but once he's down he's down. He falls back into the looped fabric: once, twice, three Monty Hall doors down before he manages to engineer his feet beneath him. Then he stands vacillating between the oppressive July heat, the conjugal smell of cabbage adrift in the close air, the decisive moment whether he'll remain standing or not.
He collapses back onto the chair.
"Help," he says, like that Life Alert commercial—like that aged person he doesn't get to be. "I've fallen and can't get up."
No dispatcher in heaven, or hell, or earth to send him help.
My mother disgusted by my father, the sluice of laughter, gets up swiftly, goes into the kitchen. That's when the flask comes out, Dick-the-Tick passing the silver flashing flask around the room, the women taking short sips, the two men, long deep slugs. My father shakes his head at Dick's offer, puts both hands up in the air: surrender/defeat/no prisoners here. The four of them giggling like preschoolers, like my sister Evie, who topples into the living room in her pink sleeveless blouse in search of Lucinda the Siamese Fighting cat.
The room stops, the silver flask caught red-mouthed at the whisky-glistening lips of Ken's date. She tucks the flask between the derelict cushions of my mother's yacht, where my father will find it later in the bleak of February, the black of one night during the third round of his chemo; he'll take a deep anesthetizing slug when he thinks no one is watching.
Ken's date stares across the room at Evie, my mother's prized daughter—long after the fact of my older sister and me, the oops child of angels, the freckled-faced daughter God never had, couldn't forsake but gave instead to my earthbound mother if only to lighten her load. Evie stands in the middle of the living room, her strawberry blonde hair like—well, like strawberries and wheat. Her divine face, that rare red copper combination will take her places, many places and men over the course of her lifetime but here at three, Evie stands strong and smooth and small all at once, her right knee skinned and bleeding but she doesn't notice.
"Evie," my father says, "this is Ken Gorbi, you remember Dick?"
Evie remembers Dick, who immediately stands up, throws her high in the air, into the twelve-foot ceiling of our hundred-year-old house, not catching her until the last moment, Evie's prairie-sky eyes wide, her terrified shriek. My father's accompanying whoop, my older sister perched on the yacht's edge, silent, unmoved; I watch with faint envy, so simple, so straightforward Evie's world. When Dick lets her down, Evie wants to do it again and again, until she spots Lucinda's ochre eyes gleaning out from the dark beneath our sofa. Then she moves like the tempest she is and will be across the room and lies at the shoeless feet of Ken's date in order to retrieve the cat.
My mother comes back with coffee, Coffee Mate, Sugar Twin, Parkay-slathered banana bread. She sets the tray down on our wood veneer table, retreats to the other side of the room.
"So sweet," says Ken's date, her voice startling, serrated, too many cigarettes, shared mickeys, whiskeys, men.
My mother looks at her, startled but no, she means Evie, as mesmerized by her as we are of this woman, her high hair, high heels, all breasts and legs and susceptible skin. The woman reaches down to pet the cat, then with permission from Evie, who smiles shyly up at her, she traces her fingers along the strawberry curls on Evie's head. She smoothes her own young hand (her age not easily discernable beneath the veneer of her heavy make-up, twenty-one, two perhaps?), caresses the salient sweet of Evie's three-year-old face as if she can't quite believe she's real. The woman attends to Evie at her feet as if none of us are there, crowded beside her on the sofa, surrounding her in the overheated room, making her know she's the thorn among roses, the rose among our thorns. The hush in the room not like before, this one different, reverential.
Evie stands up, and much to my mother's horror, crawls onto the woman's lap.
The woman and my mother exchange glances. The woman's eyes real, not the indestructible Plexiglas ones she came in with a while ago, but somber, sober if only for a split second; chance, change from the same seemingly lousy dollar you spend over and over each day, never enough your entire, difficult life.
"What's your name?" Evie asks, making herself at home, twirling the pearl buttons on the woman's silk blouse between her tiny pink fingers.
"Lucinda," the woman says.
Evie's eyes go wide. "Like the cat?"
Dick and Ken smirk, my father shakes his head in genuine disbelief, the Siamese cat in the middle of the carpet still licking her pink anus.
"Like the cat," the woman smiles, dares to wrap her arms around Evie's small, sturdy body, examines the scab already forming on Evie's skinned knee.
My sister and I watch my mother: her clouded face, her intense, silent investigation of Lucinda, past the thick veneer of make-up, the false eyelashes, the bleached blonde hair, breasts and legs like a super model. Lucinda's eyes dart back and forth across the room at my mother; difficult to tell where either woman falls, where either woman will lie. My mother holds her breath like we do when we drive through mountain tunnels, barely able to hold our breath, then exhaling in giant carbon dioxide relief when we reach the other end of the day-dark tunnel. My father draws intensely on his cigar, holds the carcinogenic smoke in his puffed-out cheeks longer than usual.
My mother holds holds holds her breath, the murk of my father's cigar smoke leaking out the sides of his closed mouth, thin, trailing curls of smoke about his head, then my mother exhales unevenly in the cool shade of our living room. Across the room Lucinda holds Evie; my mother holds the both of them in her soft yielding gaze.
And here, here in this lovely moment, in this little strawberry-haired girl of change, you get what you don't, didn't have, you get love and heart and second chance, perchance.
Then Evie, having fingered each pearl button up and down the sheer silk blouse, hugs Lucinda once, tight around her long, beautiful neck, then releases her, skips back across the room to my grateful mother who welcomes Evie in her arms like she's arrived back from some faraway trip, overseas perhaps, possibly on a yacht; the dark scent of jasmine light still on Evie's pink sleeveless blouse.
Lee Kvern is the award-winning author of two novels. Afterall is a 2013 Canada Reads (Prairies and North) selection and an Alberta Book Award winner.
The Matter of Sylvie was nominated for the Alberta Book Award and the Ottawa Relit Award.
Her short stories have won the CBC Literary Award, and prizes in the Alberta Anthology. They have been nominees in the Howard O'Hagan Award, Malahat Open Season, and Lush Triumphant Literary Award.
Search this site: