Bonus Story! When I changed the cover of my book I added two bonus stories. Here is one of them.
Updated: Oct 24, 2021
(Photo by Nick Wang on Unsplash)
This fall everyone seems so much older. We are finally leaving elementary school behind, both in grade and actual building. The “new school,” as we call it, includes grades seven to twelve. At school no one talks about playing anymore, now we talk about hanging out and going out and who is doing what with who after school. The cliques are worse than elementary school, everyone looking for a place to belong. I want to be part of a group, but I am not exactly willing to play the game either. I call it the “She Said” game: a constant battle of this girl said something about that girl, who said something else in return, but swears she did not, however, another girl said she did so that girl must be lying. On and on it goes, until someone is upset and crying in the bathroom.
I am thinking about this game and how some people take so many things for granted, as I sit alone on a narrow bench in the girl’s locker room. I look around the damp, moldy room, and notice someone has thrown a sweater over the shower rod and there is a pair of pink cotton pants on the floor. I cannot understand how anyone can leave clothes behind, as they are such a precious commodity.
There is no toilet paper at home, so I plan to take a roll from the nearby stall. I told my mother we were out before I left this morning, but she ignored me. My mother will not know where the toilet paper came from, because she never notices if we have some or none anyway. She does not notice much about the house these days. She is too busy with her new career.
At the age of thirty-five my mother announced to us kids that she needed more in her life than just being a housewife. When she told my father, he asked how they were going to pay for it. She said they would find a way. And after a long, loud discussion in the bedroom it was decided that my mother would do just that, go to school.
Ten days later, I asked my father what he really thought about the idea. He had just arrived home from the wharf in a taxi. It was late and I was in the kitchen making tea.
“It will make your mother feel better about herself,” my father said to me, and asked me to make him a cup as well.
“I wasn’t aware she felt bad about herself,” I said, and added three teaspoons of sugar to my tea and two to his.
“We will all have to help out,” he said. He sat at the kitchen table and lit a cigarette. I did not know who all he meant, because the only one helping would be me, I thought.
So, my mother applied to The International School of Cosmetology in the city. Apparently, having a high school diploma was not a requirement because my mother did not have one and she was accepted within a week. “A diploma doesn’t matter,” she said, “I’m a mature student.” I asked her why I should bother to finish high school then, and she said that I would finish high school because she said so.
She was excited and I was happy for her in some ways, but all the household chores were left up to me: dishes, cooking, cleaning, and laundry. My reward for my labour was to go downtown on the weekends. Downtown is where everyone went to hang out. On Friday and Saturday nights packs of teenagers gathered on Main Street, walking between the convenience store and drug store, stopping to hang out at the Post Office or the entrance of the grocery store. It was only ever on the right side of the street as if there was some unspoken rule that the left side was for losers or old people. I do not remember if someone told me this once or if I just figured it out for myself.
While we marched up and down in whatever weather the older kids got to drive their cars; big, old boats with tinted windows and a large Pioneer sticker across the back. Usually, music preceded any car by a quarter mile, and everyone had their own signature song, although there seemed to be a battle for AC/DC’s Back in Black; everyone wanted to pump that tune into the cold, foggy nights.
Finally, outside the locker room, I cannot hear any more students walking around. I grab a roll of toilet paper and tuck it into my armpit, deep inside my polyester jacket. I cannot believe I am doing this, and I tell myself that the school will not miss a single roll. My mother always said if someone steals something then they must need it more than whomever they stole it from. I think the justification is silly, but I am desperate, and I leave the school with my hot roll of toilet paper.
At home I notice my brothers have been here and gone. They must have arrived, threw their books on the deep freezer, and went out to play somewhere. My younger brothers fell into the age range of going out to play, but my older brother, Jay, technically fell into the hanging out category, though he preferred to spend time in the woods working on his log cabins or zip lines. My brother took me out once to see his collection of half-finished log cabins and zip lines. And one time he even let me pound some old rusty nails straight again so he could reuse them. Part of me is jealous as I would like to be out in the woods too instead of doing chores. With the stolen paper in its place in the bathroom, I dig into the breakfast dishes, not having had time to do them before I left for school this morning.
My mother does not normally get home until around six o’clock now, depending on who is driving; her or her new friend Vicky from down the road who is also attending beauty school. Vicky is much younger than her, with long black hair and big brown eyes. She wears too much blue eye-shadow, spread across her eyelids all the way up to her eyebrows, and I cannot help but think of the icing from my brother’s last birthday cake whenever I see her. But they are the best of friends now, styling each other’s hair and going out to the tavern some nights for a drink.
A married woman should not hang around the tavern when her husband is out to sea, I heard my grandmother warn my father when he was home the other day. I was picking in clothes from the line, as she spoke to him from her back step, just across our yard. “People talk,” she said. I watched my father look off into the distance, the same thing he always does when his mother his on his case, as he says. Eventually she gave up and went inside, latching her solid storm door loudly and firmly.
I am peeling carrots when my brothers come back from the woods. They have twigs in their hair and gray, sticky circles of sap on their hands. I get the butter and spread it thick and greasy on their skin just like I have seen my mother do lots of times before. It really is the only way to get it off. Then I finish cooking and feed the boys their supper. I am starting the next batch of dishes when my mother comes home. Her friend comes in too.
“We’re going to have coffee,” my mother says. She puts the kettle on the stove and opens a new pack of Export A’s. She crumples the plastic wrap and small sheet of foil from inside the package in her hand. She throws these on the table where the plastic starts to unwrap itself. She offers Vicky a smoke and they both light up. They talk about this woman and that woman and I realize the She Said game never goes away, no matter what age. They talk about this one’s kid and that one’s kid and then suddenly Vicky changes the subject.
“I have a great idea,” she says to my mother first and then repeats her idea to me. “I have a nephew from Glace Bay that you should meet. You could invite him to the school dance,” Vicky says, “he’s really cute.”
At first, I pretend that I do not hear her, after all I have my back to her and I am not supposed to be listening to their conversation anyway, as my mother always said to me whenever she had company. I finish scrubbing the frying pan and put it in the other sink to rinse. My mother gets up to make the coffee. I turn around and see that Vicky is digging into her shiny black bag that sits on the chair beside her. She takes out her wallet and opens it to a section of photos. She pulls one out.
“He’s a boxer,” she says and holds out his picture.
I wipe my slightly damp hands on my jeans and take the photo. He is wearing satiny yellow shorts, boxing gloves, and a helmet. He stands with his fists up and a mouth guard between his teeth. I do not say it out loud, but I must admit he is cute. I hand back the photo and watch as she puts it back into her wallet. My mother puts two mugs of coffee on the table and gets the milk out of the fridge. She sits back down, and I go back to the dishes.
“Well, I asked him once if I had a date for him would he come to town, and he said sure,” Vicky says.
I turn to look at her. She has what my mother would call a shit-eating grin on her face. She takes a drag on her cigarette and then smiles at my mother. She looks down then and picks at a tear in the vinyl tablecloth, stuffing the fluffy underlay back into the hole with her long, purple-painted nails.
“I showed him your school picture. The one your mother gave me,” she says. She continues to pick at the tablecloth.
“What? When? Why would you do that?” I ask as I glare at my mother. I hate my school picture this year. It was taken the second week of school, the first year they scheduled the photos that early. Of course, right before picture day my mother assured me there was no need for a certified hairdresser, that she could trim my bangs. I wanted her to wait until she had some more classes under her belt, but she insisted it would not be a problem. She screwed up my hair so badly that my bangs had to be cut super short and straight across. The kids called me Friar Tuck after that.
My mother does not answer my question or even offer some comfort on my looks. She knows how much I hate the photo. I am expecting her to say, it is not that bad or that I am not as ugly as I think I am, but she just sits there and takes a drink of coffee. After a few seconds of silence, Vicky jumps in.
“I showed him the other day, when your mother and I were in Glace Bay for the hair show. He came over to see me and we got talking about girlfriends and stuff. He says he doesn’t have much time for girls between practice and fights, but he would love to take a night off and come out.”
“I don’t want to go to the dance with anyone,” I say and throw the dish towel on the counter.
“Don’t be so silly,” my mother yells at me as I stomp down the stairs to the basement.
The night of the dance is gusty and cold. Leaves skitter gently across our front yard, then whoosh up into whirlwinds. I look out the living room window trying to decide what would be more embarrassing; having my mother drive me to the dance in our big boat of a car or having to wear my long winter coat from last year, the only one I have with a hood which I need to keep my hair from going flat in the wind. I think about my coat. I think about the first time I saw it in a store on Charlotte Street. At the time I thought it was the most beautiful coat ever, red vinyl with a white cotton embroidered design and fake fur around the bottom, cuffs, and hood. I was surprised when my mother agreed to buy it for me, since normally she is so practical, and this coat was anything but practical. It was on sale, in the middle of winter when the store was anxious to get the spring and summer clothes out, so the clerk said, when she saw us looking it over. On sale or not, I knew we could not afford it, but my mother said, “It’s beautiful, let’s get it.” The first time I wore it to school an older girl walked right up to me and said, “Nice coat, for a two-year-old.” I did not wear it to school ever again and wore my old ski jacket instead. I hoped my mother would not notice.
Now, though, if I was going to make it to the dance with my hair looking half-way decent, I would have to wear the coat or have my mother drive me. Arriving at the dance in an old Chrysler the size of a submarine is not exactly the coolest thing. I decide the coat will have to do and head out. The pavement is wet from an earlier shower and puddles glisten under the headlights of a passing car. I want to get there before Boxer Boy, as I call him, and get rid of this embarrassing coat.
I am not sure if he is coming with friends or if he is going to meet me inside or what? Vicky had only said he would be there and left it at that. I still did not know why I agreed to the date, if you could call it that, to begin with. I guess part of me was hoping he would like me, but another part of me knew he would not. I was not popular. I was not pretty. I was not even funny.
When I get to the school there are little pods of people huddled together outside, some with coats on and some without, all trying to look cool and yet not cold. But you can tell they really are cold because of the way they shuffle around and stuff their hands into their pockets. Some of the kids turn to look at me when I get to the stairs of the school. I hear them laughing and I am sure I hear someone say, look at that coat man, and the laughter increases. I put my head down and a fur circle engulfs my face. I feel my face getting hot and I know it must be the same colour as my coat. I run up the stairs and open the double doors and go inside. I turn right towards the washrooms. I hope to get the teacher’s personal washroom because it is a single stall, and I can be alone. Thankfully, it is not occupied. I go in and quickly close the door behind me, catching a big clump of fur between the door and the jam. I yank the coat free, slide down its zipper, and pull my arms out with such force that the sleeves turn inside out. Static makes my hair stand on end. I can hear music thumping in the gym and high-pitched squeals from girls giggling in the hallway. I smooth my hair down and roll my coat into a ball. I open the door of the bathroom and step out. Across the hall is the teacher’s lounge. Just inside the door is an open cupboard that holds boxes of dot matrix printer paper. I stuff my coat behind the boxes and head to the gymnasium. I feel a bit better now that I do not have the coat. Now I feel like I can blend into the crowd.
Red and green lights flash to the music, the only lights besides the exit signs and a miniature lamp over the DJ’s equipment. I stand by the gym doors, off to the side. Some of the boys from my grade are slouched in the metal fold-up chairs against the gym wall and further down is a couple making out. Everyone else is walking around the perimeter, all in the same direction. The air smells moist, like too many people have breathed it already. The music stops and everyone groans. Then Disco Inferno bursts out of the gigantic speakers. Everyone stops walking around and scrambles for a place in one of two lines. I saw this on Soul Train. A tunnel of dancers with a couple dancing the length of the line. It is cool to watch, but I need to find Boxer Boy. Now, with most people in the middle of the gym, it is easier to look. I would prefer to find Stacey first so we can walk around together. Then it would not appear so obvious that I am looking for him. Then I remember that I had not told Stacey about Boxer Boy. She is going to be mad that I did not tell her.
I walk slowly towards the back of the gym while watching a couple imitate John Travolta and his moves in Saturday Night Fever. Everyone whistles and claps for them, and they dance a little faster, doing a cartwheel at the end of the line. Burn, baby burn, bounces off the walls. I love watching them dance, but I have to find Stacey and Boxer boy, preferably in that order. I take one complete walk around and I do not see Stacey anywhere. I am sure she said she was coming when I talked to her the other day. I go around again. At the back of the gymnasium through a narrow doorway are stairs that lead to the balcony. The balcony spans the entire width of the gym. I notice there is no parent standing guard at the doorway and think this is odd since it is the perfect place to drink or make out. I have heard lots of stories from Stacey’s older sister about couples getting caught by the science teacher or worse the principal. I am thinking about the lack of a sentry when movement, just a shadow really, catches my eye. I wonder if Boxer Boy is shy and hiding in there. I look inside. It takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust, but when they do, I know I can stop looking for both Boxer Boy and Stacey. They do not hear me and do not see me; how could they? With their faces locked together at the mouth, they look like a mother bird feeding her young.
I step back and head towards the red exit sign, walking through the people who stopped dancing when Disco Inferno ended. I go out into the lobby and down the hall. There are girls waiting for the bathroom, desperate for a mirror, combing their hair with their fingers. I want to scream at them that their hair does not matter, that nothing matters, but I bite my lip instead. The last thing I want to do is cry in front of anyone. I get my coat from its hiding place, but I refuse to wear it. I walk home with it rolled up in front of me like a shield.
When I get home my mother is curled up on the chesterfield. The television is on but not turned to a station. The gray snowy screen hums. I sit down and tell her what happened. I tell her how Stacey betrayed me. I tell her how Boxer Boy betrayed me. I tell her he did not even wait for me to get there before making out with someone else, someone who is supposed to be my friend. I leave out that I had not told Stacey he was going to be there for me. I tell her that the date idea was stupid, and that I am never going to another dance again! When I finally stop talking, I realize I have been looking at my folded hands in my lap the entire time. I look up and I see that my mother is not looking at me. She is looking at the television. I look at the television too. I wonder if she can see something there that I cannot.
“I met the love of my life once,” she says suddenly. I look back at her
“What do you mean? Who?” I ask. I bite the inside of my cheek. I am frustrated that we are no longer talking about me.
“I was a little bit older than you at the time. He was aboard a fishing dragger that sunk just outside the harbour. They set up a rescue operation at the United Church Hall, but sadly only three men were brought in alive. After that it was just bodies, and they went straight to the funeral home. My grandmother was a member of the church auxiliary and she asked me to help out, you know, make the tea and sandwiches and such for the survivors and the rescue team. He was so handsome.”
My mother smiles then and reaches for her pack of cigarettes on the TV tray next to the chesterfield. She lights up and continues her story. She is no longer looking at the television, but she is not looking at me either. She stares into space and takes a long drag on her cigarette. I am stock-still in my chair. My mother rarely shares any stories about her childhood.
“I knew he was the man for me the second I saw him. I remember his teeth chattering as I handed him a cup of tea. I swear his teeth chattered for days. His name was Cal. He was from southern Nova Scotia, down Yarmouth way. Because he didn’t have any money or a way to get home, the town provided him room and board at old lady Harrigan’s house up on Blueberry Hill. He was hoping to get a job at the fish plant. He told me he didn’t want to go home without having made any money, he didn’t want to go home a failure, though I reminded him that the boat sinking wasn’t his fault. Our first date was at the drug store. We had a milkshake and fries. I paid, but he promised he would pay me back when he could. In those days they had movie nights upstairs in the Navy Hut, so we went to a few films. It was all going so well, until Doris caught wind of us, of our relationship. Next thing I know she’s everywhere we go. She’s at the movies, she’s at the drug store, she’s downtown by the old dance hall. I had seen Cal glance in her direction, but I didn’t think they had met. All I know is that at least three times a week Cal would walk to my house through the snow and slush. I remember he had these old black leather boots with a bit of a heel. There were holes in the soles. His feet would be soaked through. My mother said I could give him a pair of my father’s old socks and he would bring them back the next time he came over all washed and folded neatly. Sometimes when he came to pick me up we would go out again and sometimes he would stay and have tea with me and Ma. Then just as quickly as Cal arrived in my life he disappeared. I asked around after him. I even went to old lady Harrigan’s, but he wasn’t there. And that was it. I heard a month later that he and Doris had left town together. She got a car and they drove back to his hometown. I’m not sure if it’s true or not, that’s just what my friend Mary told my other friend Jenny, but I never saw him again. Or Doris for that matter.”
My mother stops talking then and focuses again on the gray television screen. I know I won’t get any more information out of her tonight, so I tell her I am going to bed. She tells me goodnight and then adds, “Stacey is not your friend.” I pretend I do not hear that part and continue to my room. And as I walk down the stairs, I hear the quiet sobs of my mother, and I wonder if she is crying for herself or for me.