A week for writers and lit lovers

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Lover, a short story by Joan Baril

(previously published in Room Magazine)

Sometimes it takes years before you understand the meaning of a glance. And further years may pass before you understand anything at all about the tangled landscape of love.

At the time of the glance, I am eleven years old. On a bright June day, I run up the street, across the brushy Moore property and through the gap in the lilac hedge. It’s seven in the morning and I am two hours early; but I focus only on Doctor Gordon who, on Saturday mornings, usually spends an hour or two in his iris garden before he drives to his summer cottage.

Mrs. Gordon and the doctor’s elder daughter, Dodie, have been living at the cottage since Dodie came home from university two weeks ago. The doctor’s younger daughter, Mimi, still living in town, and like me, finishing up grade six, has invited me to cottage for the weekend.

The Eaton’s shopping bag containing pyjamas, sweater and my old bathing suit swings against the branches as I skimble through the hedge. And there’s the doctor, kneeling among the irises. My breath flies out in a big huff of happiness.

He sees me at once. “Here’s the early riser,” he says as he always does. “Come on Janet. Look at the newest beauty”

The irises dot the wide curving bed which takes up most of the front yard. The few that are in flower are all deep blue or purple. Some have silver veins fanning from their down turned lips. But the doctor points to a fat golden bud still partly enclosed in its green coat.

“It’s yellow,” I say. “How wonderful.”

He strokes the folded petals. “It’ll swell out tonight. You know, it’s almost a shame we’re going down to cottage. Still, we’ll be back well before dark tomorrow.”

“What’s its name?” I kneel down beside him.

“Haven’t found out yet. I’m thinking of calling it, temporarily, ‘Dorion Gold’,” he says picking up the garden claw and scrabbling at the nearby weeds. “Spied it last year at an abandoned farm in Dorion. I could see the yellow petals blazing from the road. It was buried up to its neck in quack grass but still blooming like the sun. Obviously a vigorous old bird, eh? Sort of like me actually, when you come to think about it.”

He smiles at me with his sparkly smile. “So what do you think, Janet? Dorion Gold? A good enough name?”

I take a chance. “If it’s like you,” I say slowly, “why not call it the Doctor Gordon Iris? Or even better, the Garnet Gordon Iris.” I love the doctor’s melodious first name and, in my daydreams, always call him Garnet.

Doctor Garnet Gordon is a big-shouldered guy with silver hair and a square handsome face. He has very white teeth and, when I’m close to him, I can smell his antiseptic doctor soap. Sometimes, in my daydreams, he’s my husband; we dine together in his walnut-paneled dining room, chatting merrily and the maid, whose name is Scotty, is serving us. Sometimes he’s my father; we are out for a ride in the car and he stops to buy me a chocolate ice cream cone. Sometimes he’s my best friend and we are walking along a bush path together as if we have all the time in the world. He tells me about being a doctor in the war. He tells me about heritage roses and the difference between bearded and Siberian irises. And I talk a lot too, about school and the books I am reading and—this is the best part—he listens carefully and asks me questions in his easy pleasant voice.) These dreams spin around me in a hundred different guises; they are the cocoon in which I live.

But he’s not listening now. He has leapt to his feet at the sight of a big girl striding across the lawn. She’s wearing white tennis clothes and swinging a racket in one hand while holding, in the other, a large pink valise. She has a fuzzy pink band across her blond page boy and a pink sweater over her shoulders. I know who she is. Her name is Regina Pugh and she’s Dodie’s university friend and tennis partner, both entered in the tournament this weekend at the cottage.

The doctor turns to me and puts the garden claw into my hand. “Why don’t you toss this thing into the basket on the porch, Janet? Then go off and find that Mimi. Throw her out of bed if you have to. Tell her that her fond papa says to get a move on. And tell Scotty we’ll leave in thirty minutes.”

He smiles at Regina who is waving her racket at him. “So, Regina, you’re all ready for the courts.”

“I want to start practicing as soon as we get there,” I hear her say. “Oh, gee, we do need it. We’re awfully bad, Doctor Gordon. We’re bound to be eliminated right off. It’s going to be so darn embarrassing.” She gives a squeaky giggle.

As I head up the front steps, I hear his easy laugh and see him take her valise in one hand and, with the other, replace the top corner of her sweater that has slipped from her shoulder.

Later in the car, squeezed in the front seat between Regina and the door, I learn that Mimi is to be in the tournament as well. My friend sits alone in the back seat among the bags, tennis rackets and suitcases. (The trunk of the car is taken up with five rose bushes wrapped in burlap and two cases of beer.) She complains bitterly.

“I don’t know why you signed me up. I’m not very good and Janet can’t even play tennis; she doesn’t even have a racket so what will she do—just stand there?”

The doctor laughs. “Oh, she can be our cheer leader. And she can help me plant these roses. And maybe you can lend a hand, Regina?” And he pats her on the knee just before he shifts the gears to slow down at the House of Ice so we can all get ice cream cones.

At the cottage, Mimi and I bolt from the car as soon as it stops. First, Mimi flies into the arms of her mother, a neat grey-haired woman in wire-rimmed glasses and a flowered dress who is waiting in the drive. “Love you, Mummsy,” she says, nuzzling into her. “Missed you scads.” Mimi’s big sister Dodie, a taller version of her mother with the same wire-rimmed specs and crimped hair is there too, ignoring us but greeting Regina with happy cries. Mimi and I dance off to change into our swim suits in Dodie’s bedroom.

The Gordon cottage consists of one big room with a set of small bedrooms lined up along one side. A screen porch extends across the front and a narrow kitchen stretches along the back. Although we change in Dodie’s room for privacy, we won’t sleep there. We sleep in the mezzanine, an interior balcony overlooking the main room and reached by a ladder. I have slept up there before and now, as we climb up to stow our gear, I can see the blue lake beyond the screens and smell its sharp vanilla smell.

The water in Lake Superior is brutally cold, but when I surface, I feel encased in colour. “A thousand shades of blue, a million shades of green!” I call out, our cottage slogan for water and bush. Like everyone we know, we love the Big Lake with passion.

“And a million water diamonds just for us.” Mimi ducks and comes up squealing, tossing more water diamonds into the air. “Land of the silver bush, home of the beaver…” she yodels, splashing me hard.

I look around for the doctor and there he is in front of the cottage with a shovel, digging purposefully. He sends us a saluting wave and I wave wildly back with both hands. Out on the road behind the cottage, Regina and Dodie are heading for the courts, two white blurs against the greenery, too far to see us.

“Regina is pretty good at tennis but Dodie is terrible,” Mimi says. “She misses lots. I think it’s her eyes. They’ll never get past the first round.”

I dare Mimi to swim under the raft and, as usual, she follows my lead. It’s black under there and we have to hold our breath for a long time and keep our eyes open so we don’t surface too soon and bump our heads on the underside. We stay in the water until we hear the clangs from the metal triangle, the signal to change for lunch.

Inside the screen porch, Mrs. Gordon has laid out a huge spread—cold chicken, hard boiled eggs, jellied salad, coleslaw, potato salad, bits of celery with cheese in them and lots of grapes, my favourite fruit. A pitcher of milk and a pile of bread sit on the table as well.

The doctor talks about the roses, thrillingly addressing most of his remarks to me. The others show no interest in gardening; they are all taken up with the tournament. “I’ve got the two Hansas in,” he says with satisfaction. His khaki pants and shirt are streaked with dirt but his hands are pinky clean. “Wish I had brought more manure. Bloody lot of stones out there too.”

“Garnet,” says Mrs. Gordon. “Please.”

“What’s a Hansa?” I say.

“The world’s toughest rose, Janet, an old rugosa from 1905. You’ve seen them all over town. Our most popular rose. They’re the big dark green guys covered with magenta flowers. Lovely rosy scent. I’ve put them right under the screens in front of the porch.

“The back steps are for the two Finns. Also know as the White Rose of Finland. The little Scotch rose goes on the side of the porch. All hardy as hell and tough as nails. They should do fine except I’m worried about the Scotch. It looks a bit peak-ed. Got dried out a bit, perhaps, so I’m counting on Scottish pluck to bring it through.” He waves his beer bottle. “Scotland the brave,” he says as he takes a long swig.

Mrs. Gordon raises her eyebrows and sighs gently.

After they all go off to the tournament, Mrs. Gordon and I stay behind to tackle the mountain of dishes, first carrying everything to the back on trays.

“My, my, Janet, you certainly are handy in the kitchen. Your mother has taught you very well,” she says in her precise voice. She boils water on the stove for the dish pan while I put several sheets of newspaper on the kitchen table, scrape the scraps into the centre and carefully fold up the package tying it securely with string. “My girls could learn a lot from you.”

We are hanging the tea towels on the clothes line when Dodie and Regina burst into the back yard. “We were eliminated,” they call out, “just as we thought. But Mimi’s doing swell. She’s won her first set.”

At the courts, we make a line on the bleachers: I beside Mrs. Gordon, then the doctor, Dodie and Regina. I try to follow the play but Mrs. Gordon’s brief explanations make no sense to me. About a dozen players stand at the mesh partially blocking our view while dogs and little kids chase each other in the grass behind us and a grown-up with an arm band and a megaphone calls out instructions. From time to time, everyone claps and cheers but I’m never sure why. A breeze from the lake swoops in and far above, puff-ball clouds sail across the sky.

There are long stretches when Mimi doesn’t have to play. However, she doesn’t come up to see me but mills around with the others watching the competition and talking to her cottage friends below. Mrs. Gordon also enters into long chats with cottage ladies. I begin to feel restless and left out.

The doctor slips off his perch. “I’ll get the last of the digging done. It may rain tomorrow and I want to get that Scotch rose in. Be back later.”

After checking her gold watch, Dodie turns to her mother. “O.K. Mummsy, two hours are up since lunch so it’s safe to swim and so,” she and Regina stand up, “we two are disappearsville.” They jump down and run along the road towards the cottage.

I think longingly of the pile of movie magazines which I had seen on the table between the two beds in the mezzanine when Mimi and I carried up our clothes. Would it be possible to run over to the cottage and get some to read at the tournament between sets? Perhaps I should ask Mrs. Gordon, but she has gone down to the mesh and is deep in chat. After waiting a while, I hop off the bleachers and pelt down the road.

Up on the balcony above the living room, I can hear the doctor’s shovel outside the screens. Then Dodie comes in, wearing one of her dad’s shirts over her bathing suit. Letting the screen door slam, she crosses the porch and the living room, swinging her bathing cap in a circle. Her wet feet make squash noises as she walks across the wooden floor, into the kitchen and out the back door. She’s off to the biffy, no doubt.

I sort through the pile of magazines carefully putting the best ones on the railing. June Allyson and Van Johnson are my favourite stars. The doctor’s shovel stops and I can hear him slapping his hands on his trousers. Maybe he will come in for a beer, I think hopefully, and then maybe talk to me.

“Inside,” I hear him say and I crane my neck to look below into the living room.

Regina, wet from swimming and holding a towel, comes into the porch with him right behind her. She turns and he takes the towel and begins to dry her blond hair. She bends her head forward towards him and laughs in her squeaky way. A second later, he swings one arm around her shoulder and kisses her, actually kisses her and presses close to her as if he wants to glue himself to her body. His mouth seems to be slobbing all over hers. Even worse, she puts her soggy arms around his neck. They both make yukky noises.

With my head almost squeezed between the bars trying to see everything, I must have jolted the railing because the pile of movie magazines above me slides forward one after another. They drop slowly, in a fluttery flapping way like a slow moving pack of cards. Some of them glide across the varnished floor until they almost touch Regina’s feet. She jumps back, takes one look at me and, in three strides, vanishes in the direction of the kitchen. The back door slams.
The doctor glares at me. “Janet. Jesus Christ,” he says. Then he too disappears out the front. In a minute, I hear the chunk of the shovel.

I climb down in a sort of fever. I pick up all the magazines and put them on the little wicker table by the Quebec heater. What to do? I can hear my heart pounding as I pivot this way and that. Should I go and talk to the doctor? Better not. Hide upstairs in the mezzanine under the covers until it’s time to go home tomorrow? This is what I want to do—just disappear somewhere and think over what I have seen and let the hurt wash over me. Perhaps I should run into the woods across the road and they would all have to come looking for me and, at last, perhaps by sunset, just when everyone had given up hope, the doctor would rescue me and say…and say? My imagination turns as cold as Lake Superior and I know that I am making up a silly dream. Just as silly as all my dreams, I think bitterly.

Better to go back to the tennis courts and pretend nothing happened. I’ll tell Mrs. Gordon I’d gone to the biffy. And that is what I do. I sit on the bleachers in the sun and feel my life unraveling. There’s a big cheer when the tournament ends and I try to join in. Mimi comes second in her age group, and eventually, the megaphone says, she will get a cup with her name engraved on it. More clapping and a general move homeward.

The evening passes in a numb sort of way. Dodie and Regina go off to a wiener roast and Mrs. Gordon sets out a cold ham supper on the porch. The doctor doesn’t appear for supper. After we are in bed, some neighbours drop by to play cards and Mimi and I, up in our mezzanine, can hear them talking on the screen porch until late while the slow northern twilight blues out the world. The waves shushing in the background send Mimi to sleep, but I know I will never sleep again. My heart is an ice lump in my chest and I desperately want to cry. No, I want to howl. Instead I put my fist into my mouth.

Later I hear Mrs. Gordon say in her soft sighing voice, “Not another one, Garnet, please.” The sound of a popping bottle cap follows.

And later again, I hear a tumbling noise and when I look through the bars I see their shapes. She’s helping him as he stumbles across the room. He bumps against the wicker table with the movie magazines on it, knocking it over.

“I’m all right,” he says. “Always all right.” He lurches forward. “Scotland the brave,” he mutters before he disappears into their bedroom.

The next afternoon, Mimi and I sit in the front seat and wave good-bye to Mrs. Gordon. Dodie and Regina (who is staying on another week) have gone off somewhere. The back seat of the car is filled with bags of laundry for Scotty to do and the trunk is filled with a carton of garbage and two cases of empty beer bottles. Mimi, who has one more week of school before she moves out to the cottage for the summer, will stay home under the care of Scotty while the doctor is at work. And from then on, he will stay at home alone, coming out only on weekends like most of the fathers do in families that own cottages.

“If you join us next weekend, I can teach you how to play tennis.” Mimi says as the highway hums beneath us. “And swimming lessons are starting. Maybe you can learn the crawl at last. Your swimming is pretty clunky.” She leans toward her dad. “Janet can only do the dog paddle.”
The doctor just grunts. “We’ll see,” he says, and I know he’s mad at me.

“So”, my mother says at supper the following Wednesday. “What’s this I hear about your behaviour at the Gordon cottage?”

“What?” I say, with a sudden lurch that somehow the whole story has come out.

“The doctor says you were unruly.”

“No,” I cry. “No, I wasn’t.” I am emphatic but I know that this will cut no ice with my mother. “I was very helpful. I did dishes.”

My mother interrupts. “Well that’s it for gallivanting off. You can stay in town on the weekends after this. Tennis! Swimming lessons! What other nonsense are they cooking up down there?”

“I didn’t do anything. I was good.” But it’s useless to argue. As I run out of the house, I yell, “Doctor Gordon is a big fat liar.”

Obviously the doctor no longer wants me around. I was once his friend but now he hates me because I saw him kissing that stupid Regina. So, he tells lies about me. What a jerk, I think, a jerk of the first water. I feel the last remnants of my daydream life ripping away, turning into wisps and leaving me exposed and alone.

I wait behind the lilacs for Doctor Gordon early the next morning to catch him as he leaves for work. I know Mimi will still be in bed and Scotty will be in the kitchen. In the flower bed, the Dorion iris is in sunny bloom. When the doctor comes down the front steps carrying his doctor’s bag, he immediately walks over to look at it

“I am not ‘ruly!” I yell as I step forward “You told my mother I am ‘ruly but I am not.”

“Ah, Janet,” he says between his teeth.

“Ask Mrs. Gordon,” I yell. “I helped her in the kitchen and she said I was very handy. Just ask her.”

Then comes the glance. A glance through narrowed eyes and focused on me. A long considering glance that I do not understand until years later. A glance that is deciding how much of a threat is standing before him.

“I want you to tell my mother I wasn’t ‘ruly. I have never done a bad thing in life.” This is a lie, I realize as it pops out of my mouth. In fact, isn’t this lie practically as bad as the one the doctor told my mother? And of course he knows it to be so. The glance ends. He makes up his mind, turns, and walks rapidly toward his car.

“Except once,” I say trying to think of something to soften the baldness of the fib. “I did one bad thing. I ate my hair ribbon.”

His hand hovers toward the car door.

“You did what?’

“I ate my hair ribbon.”

“How long was this hair ribbon?” He walks back towards me.

I hold up my hands about a foot apart.

Now he squats down in front of me but I can barely see him because big tears are falling out of my eyes. “When did you do this, Janet?”

“Last Christmas,” I mumble. “It was a horrible green plaid thing. My mother made me wear it. I didn’t want to throw it in the snow so I ate it.” I want to add that I was a lot younger then and it seemed like a good idea at the time.

“And did you, Janet, ah…ever see the ribbon again?” He leans toward me.


“Very interesting,” he says. He sits back on his heels.

“That’s the truth, Doctor Gordon, but you are a fibber. You can ask Mrs. Gordon if I …”

He’s dabs at my face with his big soap-smelling handkerchief. “You’re right, I am a fibber indeed. And we don’t have to bring Mrs. Gordon into this in any way. OK?”

I nod.

“I’ll phone your mother today.”

I make a big snuffle and, taking the hanky, blow my nose hard, almost not hearing what I was hearing.
“And you come down to cottage with Mimi this week-end. We’ll see about getting some swimming lessons. How about that?”

I nod and stare at my shoes, wondering what has just happened.

“Keep the handkerchief,” he says as he gets into the car. “And don’t eat it, you hear.” I see him laughing as he drives away.

I walk over to the Dorion Gold iris and stare at it. So that’s how grown-ups get away with doing bad things, I think. They just admit their fault and drive off. Nothing happens to them. They laugh.

I frown at the iris, thinking hard. If I step on the stem, I can squash it to the ground, then smash the bloom with the other foot. I take a step closer but hesitate. I think of Mimi and the beautiful lake, tennis and swimming lessons, and finally learning to do the crawl.

Nevertheless, I lift my foot and hold it over the plant. But the iris is too beautiful, too golden, too full of life. I kneel beside it and put my face close to its glowing throat. The wavy edges of the big petals touch my cheek. Ziggy magenta veins shimmer in the deep yellow interior. I smooth the deep ribbed falls with my fingertips. A flower is so simple and unafraid, I think, and not like me all twisted up with the knowledge that, whether I am asked or not, no matter how many times, or how much Mimi begs, I’ll never go to that cottage ever again.

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