Authors: Adam Lewis Schroeder
Copyright Â© 2015 Adam Lewis Schroeder
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Douglas and McIntyre (2013) Ltd. acknowledges financial support from the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and the Canada Council for the Arts, and from the Province of British Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit.
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For Griffin & James.
Friday, October 21.
My mother-in-law, Deb,
was built like a hummingbird with long veiny hands instead of wings, and in her wafting green muumuu she looked like the ghosts my kids made out of Kleenex.
“You know what?” she said as she floated into the kitchen. “You still haven't put out the one I had framed.”
“It's still in a box.” I clattered through the cutlery drawer. “I'll find it.”
“Have you put
pictures of her out?”
Of course notâwe all remembered what she'd looked like.
“Couple on my bedside table,” I said.
“You add salt?”
“I did.” I cut Ray and Josie's havarti sandwiches diagonally and slid them into ziplock bags. “Tastes like garbage without salt.”
“I only wondered because you're, you know, so health-conscious.”
I got a hand on the Cream of Wheat spoon before she did, then draped my unknotted black-and-gold tie over my shoulder so it wouldn't dip into the pot while I stirred. Substitutes have to maintain a decorum that I've seen plenty of permanent-position teachers neglectânamely, we can't show up to work spattered with goop.
“Oh, you made coffee,” said Deb. “Thank God.”
She poured into a kitten-covered
mug that I hadn't had the balls to leave back in Wahoo.
“Now, what can I do for their lunches?” she asked.
This was a Friday. The night before, she'd driven her Corolla the two hours from MacArthur, because once a month she came to hang out with the kids and, apparently, to help out around the house.
“All taken care of,” I said, screwing the tops onto their aluminium water bottles.
“A-ha, I see an opening!” In her fuzzy slippers she quick-shuffled toward the kitchen table, heaped with clean towels. “I'm going to fold this or I'll smack you in the mouth!”
She set her mug on the corner of the table and black coffee sloshed across one of the lacy white pillowcasesâwedding present from my college roommate Hank, who'd died the year after, car crash driving home to Kansas. Our pilly pillowcases in college had smelled like unwashed feet, and I remembered Lydia shaking her head in bald amazement as we'd ripped away Hank's wrapping paperâthere was such a thing as
“Oh, no.” Deb gazed up at me with her face as long as a deflated balloon, the defiled object clutched to her chest. “I'm sorry, Peter!”
I breathed slowly and deeply up my nose, then gave my left earlobe a reassuring pinchâa trick I'd developed in recent years to keep myself from screaming in oncologists' offices. Deb wasn't dissuading me from my belief that it's better to just get things done yourself.
“No, no, it's cool.” I released the earlobe and threw a dishcloth down over the spill. “Pop it in the wash, put your feet up and you can decide what's for supper tonight.”
“Oh, burgers, definitely!” She tugged open the closet door that hid our washing machine. “The whole drive, I was salivating for a burgerâthere's so many Fuddruckers billboards!”
“No, no meat.” I folded the last towel and dropped it into the basket. Pinched my earlobe a half-dozen more times. “I'm pretty sure you know that.”
“I can get the tofu-and-mushroom ones for you and the kids, Walgreens has those, and you won't mind if I actually cook beef on your barbecue?”
Carcinogens! Jesus Christ!
I wanted to yell.
“I won't mind,” I grinned, treating the Cream of Wheat to a stirring it wouldn't soon forget.
She pushed the buttons and shut the closet door then looked around with a forced little smile that put dimples in her cheeks. She'd really wrinkled up in the years I'd known her, but the lines were so uniform around her eyes and mouth that in the right light they weren't even there. She took Ray's orange jacket off its hook, shook a pine needle off the sleeve, hung it up again. She sat down beside her coffee and dangled a slipper from her toe while I set the maple syrup and spoons beside her.
“What's your hurry this morning?” she asked.
“Every morning's like this. Get all the stuff done, then once they sit down I can hang out with them.”
“You could get them to set the table and thatâJosie's old enough, certainly.”
“I get it done myself, no problem.”
“You know.” She wiped coffee off her chin with the back of a freckled hand. “I can't say how you could possibly be doing anything differently right now, but I really get the feeling that you're hanging by the skin of your teeth.”
, I thought,
thanks for noticing!
“That's not the case,” I said.
“I've got that field trip to Velouria. They're feeding us.”
“Next weekend, you know what you should do? Go over and see your mother.”
“I'm not taking the kids all the way to Pawnee just for a weekend, no way. The lastâ”
“I know that,” she said. “I mean I'll stay ten days, you go over there by yourself and I'll take the kids to the movies, put them to bed, all of that. Tell her I said hello.”
“Well, I'll see how the week goes.” Down the hall I shouted, “Kids? Hey?” Then I told her, “I haven't been over there in a while.”
“I had that impression,” said my mother-in-law.
Is she still your mother-in-law if her daughter's been dead six months?
“Okay, the pictures,” I said. “It's the three of us now, right? I'm striving for normal. So reminding them every time they walk through the living room that there's supposed to be four, that isn't normal. There's three of us.”
“So you've got one crappy picture on the fridge. That isn't healthy, really not.”
“Well, it's normal.”
She grunted and threw back the last of her coffee like it was a shot of tequila. Seriously, what could contribute less to the planet than a mug covered with kittens? My cup said
, sure, but the Steelers are the greatest franchise in football history, with a longer half-life than plutonium.
“My god,” she said, “the radio last night was just one Congo talk show after another, and it was all moms and grandmas talking about their sons coming back with their lips cut off. The LRA grab them in the dark and hack away with machetes, can you imagine anything worse?”
I could remember Lydia's belly, big and square like she'd been pregnant for a third time, but all she'd been carrying was tumours. The night we'd sat in front of baseball on the
and finally agreed that the treatments had all been a waste of time, how we could've spent the previous weeks watching the kids climb Mayan pyramids and wade through green Yucatan surf. Too late for any of that, as we'd watched the Kansas City Royals flail silently at one pitch after another.
“ âCut off from their unit,' ” Deb went on, “that was all any of them said, like all of our soldiers are out there with blindfolds on or something!”
“I guess the jungle's like that at night.”
“And I kept picturingâoh my godâlittle Ray with
lips cut off, waiting to sit on Santa's knee, trying to eat a sandwich, all with his lips cut off, and I had to pull over! Had to pull the car over!”
She put her wet face in her hands. Shifted her slippers slightly.
“Congo's ten thousand miles from here,” I said. I stood beside her and rested my hand on her bony shoulderâshe felt like a hot washcloth. “And at least those guys aren't getting killed, right? They're back with their families.”
“But their families can't
at them! A person's in one piece then they're not in one piece, we can't
that, they say they don't even feel like human people! How can they say, âHey, life without lips isn't really that bad,' when they can't even pronounce half the syllables in the alphabet?”
Was she on meth? Hadn't she lost Lydia just as completely as I had? I rinsed the sandwich knife under the tap.
“At least they are alive and with their families,” I said.
She wiped her eyes on the muumuu's shoulder then grimaced at me, blinking gummy lashes.
“Okay, please don't make this about her,” she said. “Let's just agree that there's plenty of kinds of horror in the world, does that suit you okay? It's not a competition. I know, I have to stop myself in the grocery store every time someone starts telling a supposedly sad story. âIt is not a competition,' I tell myself.”
I scrubbed down the sides of the sink.
“And after,” I said, “you sit in the car feeling sick.”
“Yes,” she nodded.
“The reason they don't kill them is that they think no one else here will volunteer after they see a veteran walking by with half a face. Leave one guy alive now, just mangle him, and that's ten guys they won't have to fight later. We've got a half-million troops in Africa, and the LRA is already worrying about the guys coming after that.”
“No, the radio said the LRA's trying to outdo the M23 so the stupid UN will negotiate with them first. It's just dollars and cents, that's the most horrible part.”
“The M-who?” I asked.
Josie stumbled down the hallway, the back of her wrist thrown dramatically across her eyes, blond Ray hopping after her with the belt of his bathrobe tied around his ankles. Before their mother died they'd both sworn by Rice Krispies because of the noises, of course, and had said Cream of Wheatânot with brown sugar but maple syrup, Lydia's preferenceâwas slimy. Now Cream of Wheat with maple syrup was all they'd eat before ten.
“Way to hop,” I told the kids.
“It's not my school day,” Ray announced.
“Look,” I said, “this isn't preschool anymore. Fridays you go to school like the rest of us.”
you say you don't have school!” Josie grinned, because today she evidently found him hilarious rather than brain-damaged.
“More syrup,” he said, sluicing off my initial outlay with his spoon. Spilled milk had already soaked across the chest of his
“Isn't this field trip going to put your afternoon behind?” Deb stared at her raisin bread in the toaster. “Want me to pick the yahoos up from school?”
“Man, when I planned out this week I'd forgotten you'd be here,” I said as the end of my tie flew dutifully past my face. “I'll get them from the sitter, it's okay.”
“Oh, no, no.” Now she had the freezer door open, tapping the edge of the counter with her butter knife. “I'll get them.”
“You really don't mind? I'm happy to get them.”
“Not even a breakfast sausage in here, hey?”
“There's string cheese in the meat drawer!” Ray offered, diffused sunshine from the sliding-glass door highlighting his three dozen freckles.
“Oh,” Deb said. “No thanks.”
“They're awesome!” said Ray.
awesome.” Josie pushed up the sleeves of her
hoodieâI'd have to buy her a
. “But they come wrapped in too much goddamn plastic.”
“Hey now!” said Deb.
“She's right,” I said, checking my tie in the hall mirror. The bottom inch overlapped my belt precisely. “That crap gets into everythingâalbatrosses in the South Pacific. And you know which carcinogen is the easiest to avoid?”
“Okay. Burnt meat,” Deb admitted.
Removing the stink-eye from Josie, she inspected the bubble-jet version of our wedding photo on the fridge door, making like we hadn't been arguing in the first place.
But now my kids and I were also looking, from our various angles, at Lydia with the foot-long veil clipped to her brown hair, her ivory dress reduced to featureless space by the glare of the camera's flash. But our eyes didn't see that whiteness. All any of us saw was a mass of charcoal-tinged carcinogens eating their way up from her colon, roiling like an electrical storm, the fridge motor's hum providing a soundtrack.
“Today is Mom's birthday,” Ray whispered over it.
This had been their shtick since we left Wahooâapparently every day in the year was now Lydia's birthday. Weird, but I figured it was better than them throwing things out windows.
Mom's birthday,” said Josie.
“Here's teamwork for you,” I told Deb. “The Giller Think Tank.”
She gave her head a shake like she'd been doused with seawater.
“Her birthday's right after Christmas! If
would know that, Iâ”
“Exactly,” I said. “This house overflows with brains.”
The kids put their bowls in the sink, then Josie ran to get her silent-reading book from the back of the toilet, Deb went to pull sweatpants out of her suitcase and Ray ambled into the privacy of the living room to pick his nose, leaving me alone to stare down Lydia's picture. The dimples on either side of her mouth, the dance of infinitesimal eyebrowsâit didn't look to me like a dead person's smile.
Nine drips of Deb's coffee still glistened under the table, so I stomped across to the broom closet. Like always I'd been left behind to mop up.
I kept the
passenger seat heaped with yellowing handouts from my school back in Wahoo just to disguise the passenger seat's sheer passengerlessness, and Josie wouldn't be allowed to leave the back seat until she topped eighty pounds. That was Nebraska law.
During our first semester at UC Denver, Lydia had had passport photos taken, a block of four, the way they always come, and one had ended up in my wallet. In the picture, the relationship between her upper lip and teeth looked particularly earnest, and her hair was straight and parted down the middle in some kind of retro-sixties thing. That had been a new look, and with each of us away from home for the first time, I'd hoped the hairstyle might somehow symbolize a new-found sexual liberation. For that one rare instance I'd been entirely right, and had found myself between her legs more often than most people have to pee.