I hope you enjoy this excerpt from my book “Roads Unravelling.”
“D’ya smell God in the air, Claire?”
“Yeah.” I flush with pleasure. The sun is warm on my head. Spring smells delicious. I clutch packets of seeds in my hands, peering up at Granny Banty. She’s perched on the stepladder, pouring soil out of a koolaid jug into the eavestrough. Opaque pull-on rubbers, the type crimson-lipped ladies wear to church, cover her slippers. Varicose veins knuckle her calves.
It’s May long weekend. Granny Banty’s planting herbs in the eavestrough. When my Daddy, Edon, comes home from driving truck, he’ll shake his head and say she’s a nutcase if ever he saw one. He’ll threaten to get a chain saw, and cut the huge oak branches that shield her herbs from the rain and wind, if she doesn’t plant them in flower pots like normal, sane folk.
I’ll listen through the screen after he’s gone indoors for the pop of a beer can, the creak of the chair. In my mind, he’s John Wayne, home, safe and sound. All the bad guys have been run out of town.
The jug plunks into a clump of grass.
“Seeds.” Granny Banty’s hand comes down.
I rip one corner off each packet and place them, standing up, in her palm. Already, the different scents hint of wonders to come: Basil, Mint, Rosemary, Thyme. Warm brown eyes share my excitement. Her arm swings up. I imagine her fingers drawing furrows in the earth, seeds fluttering to their nests.
I pick up the watering can, hugging its belly to mine. Despite Granny Banty’s warning, I’ve filled it too full. I gaze at the back of her head, counting the rows of tight curls. I’m the only one she lets help with a Toni. She always angles the mirror over her shoulder, telling me how to hold the tissue and twist each roller.
“Got the water jug?”
“Yep.” I swell with pride.
The back door bites my tailbone.
“How many times do I hafta tell you to stay outta my way!” Shawna’s dark eyes flash.
“Jayzus, you!” Granny’s mouth tightens. “Apologize or march right back round.”
“Aunty Shawna’s super-sorry, turdface.”
“Hell, Ma, if Claire didn’t flap around with her head in the clouds, she’d see me coming.”
“Watch yer lip–“
“I’m late.” Black T-shirt, mini-skirt, fringed vest swing up the hill. The smell of Taboo and Export A drift.
I stare at the ground, cheeks burning. I want to see Rosemary. My friend, Rosemary. Water from the overturned can runs off the stoop, through the dirt, puddles round a grey stone until it disappears under milky clouds.
“I hate you! I hate your fugging guts, you pissy kussy shlippy gashole!!”
Having hurled every nugget mined from the bleakest corners of his seven-year-old soul, Darren’s attempt to confront me once and for all crumples. He leaps off the couch and runs down the hall. I watch for puffs of smoke, sniff for burning rubber. But all I smell is mothballs and turkey.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” I mumble, trying to ignore the pangs of guilt. They insist that this, the shattering of Darren’s Kodak moment, is all my fault.
Last week, I filled our suitcases and loaded them into the car. My marriage was over. I loved my husband, Arthur, but there was no fixing what I had broken. I could not bring myself to admit to Darren that we were leaving for good. I had a small nest egg that would keep us going for a few months. Arthur had owned the house before we were married, and, as far as I was concerned, he owned it still.
I threw our suitcases into the car and numbly followed the ribbon of highway to New Brunswick, back to this shack on the Kennebecasis River, unable, despite racking my brain for hours, to think of anywhere else to go.
The key was under the mat, just like Aunt Liz had always claimed it would be if I ever had an urge to visit. I told Darren that I had only come here to cook Thanksgiving dinner. Then, we would move on. He deserved a decent holiday at least. Now, I had ruined even that.
I glance at the gold-flecked mack tack peeling off the aquarium, the mismatched TV trays, the fold out couch. The living room borders on spacious compared to the kitchen, with its narrow, slanting floor. The cupboards house a mish-mash of gas station glassware. But there is, I admit grudgingly, an odd comfort in the familiar.
Every night on our journey from London, Ontario I lay awake in our motel room mulling it over. How did Claire Reed, part-time mother, part-time food bank volunteer, end up rotting in a dingy bar when she was supposed to be brooding over Tolstoy in a Philosophy of Art night class? Was that really me, surrounded by tacky Rococo and cheap Sauterne, waiting for my lover, Reginald, to appear? Each time he left, the quiet despair did not. I’m racked with guilt, not for the infidelity, not any more, but because I simply don’t understand why.
I get up off the floor and step over the hand-held video game. A large crack runs through its middle. I knocked it off the book shelf, which I accidentally bumped while dancing with a bunch of carrots. The dance, performed to the tune of Skin-a-marinky-dinky-dink, was my attempt to get Darren to smile. He hasn’t since we left home. I’d rehearsed a speech about new beginnings bringing adventure and challenge. I never got that far. The video game tumbled off the book shelf. When he turned it over, all the frustration that had been building in those bony fists exploded. My ribs still ache.
I have lost all sense of time when I finally get up and lift the lid on Granny Banty’s roasting pan. The turkey is cold. I should have carved it long ago. An annoying lump swells in my throat and suddenly the kitchen’s a rolling blur.
Oh Darren, my sweet baby boy, what have I done?
Fumbling with the pantry door, I yank Granny Banty’s homemade quilt down from a shelf. I spread it onto the linoleum, fold it in half, then quarters. I lift the bird by the basting strings. They’re greasy, hard to grasp. The turkey swings through the air. It slips and bounces over the wedding rings sewn with Edon’s flannel shirt. I wrap it up and carry it to the rocker by the window facing the river.
I’m vaguely aware that cold grease is soaking on to my knees, that what I’m doing is absolutely absurd, but it doesn’t matter. I cradle the bundle to my breast. It feels right somehow. This is how Granny Banty used to hold me. I start to sing, bewildered that I remember the hush-hush, milk-warm, after-a-bath-words.
Little one, little one
Fat and all alone
Mommy’s gone to Moncton
Daddy gnaws the bone
Show us a dimple
Granny’s an old fool
But she’ll have to do.
I frown, thinking of Rosemary. Rosemary! And I finally admit, with a start, that she has been there all along, flitting between sunlight and shadow, across the miles, across the years, stalking me like a ghost. I promised myself I’d forget about it all. Wore my willpower like a crown. I am startled and shamed by the sneaky, blinding betrayal of self.
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