Saturday afternoon, 1985:
Alice’s father looked disappointed when Cass came down the steps of the bus. The last friend Alice had brought to Toronto had the glossed lips and feathered hair of a Solid Gold dancer, brown doe eyes framed by lush lashes. This new girl pierced icy blue from behind John Lennon specs and bore the smooth scalp of Sinéad O’Connor. The fact that Cass met her father’s gaze at eye level couldn’t help, Alice thought. His shoulders dropped. His expression said, “God help us.”
She bound down the steps and into her father’s arms, holding him longer than usual, linking her fingers behind his waist until he gave in and kissed the top of her head. Being here with Cass meant everything to Alice. When she pulled away, Rich raised his eyebrows, a fatherly promise, she thought, that he’d do his best. Alice was fifteen and it was understood that she would keep her long hair and wear makeup until she went to university. This was the kind thing to do. Dinner was quiet, save for the squeaks of fork tines and Vangelis on the dual tape deck. Barb, Rich’s new wife, was young but nice enough. She ate with one hand and used the other to tug gently on the bootie of her newborn cooing in the Jolly Jumper. Alice’s father had moved on with his life. Truth was, Alice was happy for her father. He lived with his choices.
“Alice, how’s that boyfriend?” Barb said. “How’s Gregg?”
“I don’t like Gregg.”
“Last we heard you had a little crush on him.”
“Last I heard Gregg had a little crush on Mom.”
“And he’s an asshole.” Alice shot back, immediately regretting her tone.
“Maybe a little backgammon later?” Rich said, and winked from across the table.
They cleared the plates and milled about the apartment, finding awkward retreat in separate rooms, disappearing behind kitchen walls, strolling down the hall to throw bags down the garbage chute. Alice stood in the washroom off the hallway, flushing the toilet and jiggling the taps. She was trying to catch stray bits of the muffled argument that would decide where she and Cass would sleep—the den, where there was a couch and air mattress, or the master bedroom where they would share one king-size bed.
“I want her to feel at home,” Rich said.
“I guess,” Barb said. “I just don’t understand what that girl is doing here. If you can even call her that. And why does Alice always have to bring someone?”
“Barb, I’m not going to make a big deal out of this. They’re just kids.” Alice wandered to the living room window, tickling the baby’s feet and dragging her hand across Cass’s waistband as she passed by. It was all very grown up here, in this corner condo on the waterfront, her lady by her side. Too bad there weren’t any pillow mints. A crystal bowl brimming with pillow mints. Alice’s grandmother always put them out for guests, a small but classy gesture that said: You are welcome here.
There was a clear view across to her father’s room. Rich sat on the edge of the bed tugging mindlessly at his watchband, exchanging it for a glass of Scotch on the night table. Barb crossed to the wardrobe to take off her earrings. Rich reached out to slap her ass, but she brushed his hand away. He picked up the watch again, wound it once, and tossed it back on the table. He looked tired. He went to the window, burrowing his toes in the plush carpet, and jumped a little at the sight of Alice across the way. He looked like he’d been caught with (yet) another woman. They pretended not to see each other. The wind was coming hard off the lake in a steady whistle. The skyline sparkled. Snow spun up the building caught in a curl, or a crest—Alice couldn’t quite place it. She thought it looked like the end of a cracked whip and felt like an undertow. Catching Cass behind her own reflection, rocking the baby, it wasn’t hard for Alice to imagine this place as theirs.
It was barely nine o’clock when, decision made, Alice and Cass excused themselves for the night and shut the door to the master bedroom. One by one, the lights went out around the apartment. Alice slid the dimmer and stood by the window. A row of motels lined the highway, bright pink like in Miami Vice. Two women stood huddled at the corner, stepping off the sidewalk into the street as cars approached. Alice’s feet settled into the grooves from where her father had stood earlier—apparently where he stood often.
Cass was still in the washroom, freshening up. Unlike the milk-and-Oreo kisses Alice and her best friend had shared in grade six, tonight both girls knew what was about to happen. And this king-size bed, tucked tight with hospital corners, was a long way from Alice’s basement floor—a long way from rustled blankets and the room heater aglow in pretend games of cowboy camp-outs. As a ten-year-old, Alice’s fantasies had been alive with visions of Kathleen Turner from Romancing the Stone, Jessica Lange from Tootsie, and a young Judy Garland. And while she’d caressed them all, teasing their hair in her fingers, rubbing the back of their necks, her visions had always been fully clothed, and had never moved below the waistline. Tonight, much older, Alice would be expected to know what she was doing.
Here, she was in a grown-up apartment, in the bedroom of her father—a man she barely knew. Back home, she was only allowed in her mother’s bedroom to access the top drawer of her bureau where there was a stock of Aqua Net. Once, she’d rummaged through another drawer and found a strip of lubricated condoms. She’d stood mesmerized, rubbing the squares between her fingers, the hard coils slipping around under the plastic.
Alice went to her father’s wardrobe and opened the bottom drawer. A plush doll dressed in a trench coat and fedora sat atop a stack of black bags. Alice opened one to find a book on erotic massage. She flipped it open to an image of a naked Chinese woman straddling a pale man with a bushy moustache and a hairy chest. Alice recoiled, placing the book back in its wrapper, precisely as she’d found it.
The light under the bathroom door went out. Alice closed the drawer and scanned the room grabbing details, things to remember, from the moment before her life would change. Wicker basket. Pastel artwork. Mirrored doors. Hand weights. She felt the sting of bile against the back of her throat when Cass stepped into the moonlight in a lacy nightgown. It was delicate. Dainty. Where was the sporty tee from earlier sleepovers? Alice had imagined the sort of woman who wears a tuxedo shirt, or an undershirt under a cashmere cardigan while she shops for groceries. A woman who knows what she wants, not one who needs showing. This nightgown made Cass look feminine in a way that made Morgan Fairchild beautiful to many but hideous to Alice.
Standing rigid in her flannel bottoms and torn T-shirt, Alice felt less than the man she’d need to be to please this girl. Cass must have known because she went to Alice, guiding her to push her nightie up past her waist. This was it. Like falling off your bike, or slipping on a patch of ice, or reaching the highest level of Pac-Man with nowhere left to go—it wasn’t quite real. Hip bone to hip bone, Alice and Cass made out until their lips were chafed. Alice had become good at kissing. She knew that if she licked the corner of Cass’ mouth she’d gasp. Nip her bottom lip and she’d exhale loudly. Tonight, the girls created a tight seal, keeping their noises muffled to the curious ears in the next room. Cass ran her hands under Alice’s T-shirt, along the broad of her shoulders, hesitating slightly around a mole, then down the back of Alice’s underwear. Alice eagerly palmed Cass’s breasts. They were heavier than she imagined. She shifted forward onto the tips of her toes as if she didn’t have breasts of her own, bracing herself against Cass, strengthening her grip.
Cass grabbed Alice’s wrist.
Alice backed away, falling onto the bed so forcefully that the brass headboard knocked against the wall.
“I just don’t feel anything in them.” Cass softened her tone. “Never have.”
Her nightgown continued to rest on her thick hips. Alice grimaced, thinking: My grandmother wears those underwear. A sharp rap came at the door, Barb needing her face cream. Alice dove under the covers. A beat passed and Barb entered, moving quickly past Cass into the bathroom. Cass whispered after her, “She’s asleep.” Cass continued to stand in the middle of the carpet for no good reason. Barb stepped back into the room, face to face with Cass and her hips.
“You girls should close those blinds if you don’t want people seeing in.”
Barb left and Cass got into bed, her back turned to Alice. Alice trained her eye on the night table waiting for the sounds from the next room to stop. Bowl of pocket change. Sweat-stained watchband. Emery board and nail polish. The neon clock bled 9:25 p.m. It was over. When would this chance come again? Alice didn’t feel rejected so much as defeated.
Some previous Friday:
Gregg stood alone in his room, an extension built onto the side of the house that he shared with the washer and dryer. He lived with his Uncle Jed in a tan-coloured prefab home, furnished courtesy of Waste-It, Jed’s junk removal business. Bernie, Jed’s sometime girlfriend, ran the carpet sweeper back and forth in the living room. She had a bedazzled X on the back pocket of her rugger pants. Her poodle perm was fresh.
“I’ll make you some KD when Y&R is over.”
“’Kay,” Gregg muttered.
“Alright?” she yelled.
“I said ‘Okay’!”
Gregg closed the door. The familiar sound of the neighbours’ car slowly backing into the drive, stones spitting off the tire wells, sent Gregg to the window. He pulled up a plastic patio chair and peered through the trees, methodically picking at the scabs of his blackfly bites. Gregg looked forward to Fridays when Deb came home with her daughter, Alice, after their weekly grocery run. He smiled to himself. Deb was still getting used to driving her ex-husband’s car. When Rich left, she had decided to sell her Sedan, thinking his station wagon would be more useful. She put the car in drive, straightened out, yanked her neck to look over her shoulder and tried her approach again. Success. Gregg watched as Alice and Deb moved to the kitchen with their grocery bags, disappearing, then reappearing whenever they passed a window. Their breakfast nook was partly glassed in—a semi-solarium—and Gregg had a clear view through to the kitchen. Alice put away the frozen food while her mother cut off thick slices of fresh bread, smothering them with margarine. They unpacked in silence, pausing occasionally for a quick bite. Gregg’s tummy grumbled.
Deb-o-rah. He mouthed it, admiring the lack of syllabants, syballants, whatever. Gregg with three Gs. Too many Gs, he thought. Too much Gregg. Other kids’ parents thought that he was high energy, but he was just hungry. On the first night that his uncle didn’t come home for dinner, Gregg learned he liked Ritz crackers dunked in hot chocolate. He also learned to like peanut butter and Cheez Whiz on celery. Alice was shelving diced fruit and rice pudding, and Gregg wondered how many hours she’d spent craving supper. Canned chili with buttered toast? Fast-fry steak and stewed tomatoes?
Deb diced a green pepper into a pile of onion and mushrooms. A dollop of margarine sizzled in the cast-iron pan. Two eggs were cracked into a bowl while slices of Wonder Bread browned in the toaster. She grabbed the ketchup from the shelf. Western sandwiches, Gregg thought. He leaned forward, his head pressed to the screen, biting his fingernails. He loved ketchup on everything. Kraft Dinner. Hot dogs. Hamburgers. French fries. Grilled cheese. Onion rings. Eggs. Hash browns. Meat loaf. Bacon. Fish sticks. Cheese sticks. Pasta. Beans. Fried bologna sandwiches.
Alice put away the rest of the groceries, and her mother moved to the kitchen table. Resting her bread on a folded paper towel, she filled out what appeared to be a cheque, her back straight, hands soft, holding the slip in place as she filled in the blanks. Deb looked down at her wrist. What did she see there, Gregg wondered.
He thought about his own mother, her cursive lettering and upper case swirls. Her writing had appeared in every lunch bag, on every Christmas gift tag. Even her calendar reminders made pending doctor’s appointments easier to bear. That was five years ago. These days, he didn’t recognize her scribbles on the postcards that showed up on his cot from time to time. It wasn’t the writing of a mother who once loved him in the warmest ways, but rather the writing of made-up memories—a history in which Gregg figured as a very bad boy, and his dead brother, Ronnie, as a saint. Gregg looked up to see Deb staring at him through the window. He realized he was crying. He stared back, unflinching. The living room grew silent. On Y&R, Victor had left Nikki for Ashley, and Bernie was angry. “Fucking hell,” Bernie growled. “Why can’t they keep these two together?” Deb rose from the table and went to the counter, bumping hips with Alice, once, twice, three times. Brushing the tears forcefully from his face, Gregg threw himself on his bed thinking: Her hugs must feel like water.
Many summers ago:
The people of Coboconk started locking their doors. They needed to make sure their children were safe. Puberty hadn’t hit. Voices hadn’t lowered an octave. No one had started their period. Nothing outward indicated that the children weren’t allowed to be kids anymore, that they needed supervision. A man had simply stood outside the liquor store and struck up a conversation with a shy, red-headed teenage girl sitting on a bench outside the realtor’s.
Trish looked happy that day, Gregg thought. He was sitting across a parking lot from her in the passenger seat of his mother’s two-toned grey Cougar while she ran into the store for snacks. Trish must have been thinking about Ronnie. Even Gregg, a nine-year-old, knew that his big brother was a nice boy. His school picture flattered his broad nose and delicate lips. He treated Trish well, and she probably believed he always would. It was in the way he respected a waitress, Trish had once said, how he listened attentively while she described the daily specials, and always stopped talking when she came by to refill the coffee.
Below the bench, a golden Lab sat at Trish’s feet, a gift from her parents for making the honour roll. The man bent down to pet the puppy, looking up at the girl as if they were old friends. Gregg couldn’t recall having seen the man before, but assumed he was a visiting relative and went back to playing his Digital Derby. That must have been the precise moment Trish agreed to get into a car with the man because Gregg would be asked to repeat this detail again and again to Trish’s weeping parents and, eventually, the police.
That same week, the city taped memos to everyone’s doors. Clean your barbecues. Cover your composters. Bring your dogs in at night. That sort of thing. Apparently, there had been animal sightings long before nightfall. The pieces started coming together the morning Gregg’s mother took her daily walk by the shoreline instead of into town. She saw a bear nosing around an upturned canoe that had been abandoned in the forest. The police taped off the area, keeping the neighbours at bay, the largest officer pinning Trish’s father to a tree until he calmed down. Then the town waited in silence as a flatbed was loaded, ready to cart off the canoe along with the bodies of Trish and her dog that had been gathered in plastic bags.
Ronnie had tried to enjoy his first summer as a legal driver, drinking beer out of a cooler in his trunk, tuning in to the Top 10 around the bushfire with friends who wouldn’t look him in the eye. They’d hoped he would have hooked up with another girl already, so things could go back to the way they were.
“He’s a mess,” said one.
“Thinks he was in love,” said another.
“You should be so fucking lucky!” Ronnie shouted.
Or at least that’s how Gregg imagined it. He was just a boy, and no one thought it wise to give him all the details. In his mind, he could see his brother shouting, stumbling from the trees, ragged from pacing. That’s when the rain would have started, a sudden downpour that drenched them, the bushfire turning black with smoke and upturned embers. The girls ran for cover, droplets dangling from their long strands like stars on swings. Maybe Ronnie had massaged his eyes, trying to shake out the blur. Gregg had seen him do that on long afternoons in the garage tinkering on his old car, drinking Labatt 50. Gregg imagines Ronnie tipping back the last of his beer and tossing the bottle into the brush. Gregg’s chest seized as he played out the next part, his brother in his car, swerving on and off the gravel road as he kept one hand on the wheel, one eye on the road, trying not to drool into the packet of Pop Rocks the cops would soon find under the driver’s seat. The only thing Gregg knows for sure is what happened next: Ronnie was thrown clear past the shoulder into the trees. But sometimes, when he lets himself picture the end, the very end, Gregg sees and hears the blood spilling from his brother’s mouth on a fountain of fading crackles.
Altered, maybe forever, Gregg’s mother packed him up to move in with Jed, where he was put to work on the weekends loading the truck with pieces of old stoves, sinks and other rusted junk. No match for the Popeye forearms of his uncle’s endless lifting, Gregg struggled to keep up with a five-foot-four-inch man who could pitch a carburetor over his head.