Monday, November 23, 2009

Short Story by Joan Baril

This story won second place in the Canadian Authors' Association (Niagara Branch) 2009 short fiction contest. It is published in Ten Stories High, a compilation of the winning stories.

By Joan Baril

I skip through the police station door, across the lobby into the back room where the policemen eat their lunches, drop the black metal lunch box on the wooden table, wave to old Sergeant McKee behind the front desk and almost bump into my father in his police uniform when I’m back out on the sidewalk.

“Steady on, lass,” he says, leaning down towards me. “Just the gal I want to see. I’ve something to say to ye, so mark ye well.”

My father always looks a bit scary in his uniform. Maybe it’s the shadow of the peaked cap that hides his cheery blue eyes. Maybe it’s the dark jacket with the golden buttons and the sergeant’s stripes that makes him seem impossibly huge. He puts his hand on my shoulder.

“Ye know that Elsie you play with?” he says. “At the Castle Confectionary on Winder Street.”

“What about her?”

“You’re to stay away from that store.”

“No-o-o.’ It comes out as a wail.

My father shakes his index finger at me. “Janet, don’t blether,” he says. “I’m telling ye for your own good—stay away from that store. The place is an outfit and that’s all ye need to know.”

Parents are such difficult people. I nod quickly, “OK, OK,” but inside, I’m boiling. When I get to the corner, I turn and yell, “You’re so mean,” but he’s gone and the double doors of the Port Arthur Police Station are swinging shut.

I kick snow clods as I walk home. I know very well why I have to stay away from the store. Even though Elsie’s father is famous in Poland and worked for a newspaper there and was a Party Zan in the war, here in Canada, he’s a bootlegger.

Elsie Dolinski and I became friends three weeks ago when she arrived in our grade three class. She’s a fairy girl with sky blue eyes and spun gold hair that wisps across her face. Last week, when it first snowed, she came to school in a white coat with fur trim, white leggings and carrying a white fur muff. She looked as if she’d stepped off the shelf of the Eaton’s doll department.

The first time I go to Elsie’s place, we play cut-outs in the big kitchen behind the store. We set our Princess Elizabeth paper dolls on the stairs leading to the bedrooms above. Her mother, a tiny woman with yellowish grey hair in a roll around her head, bustles back and forth from the store to tend to something on the stove. She was a writer in Poland, Elsie tells me, and wrote children’s books but now she’s a storekeeper with a big blue apron over her flowered dress. For some reason, she calls me Liddle.

“Here you, Liddle,” she says, setting a cup on the table. “Nice you visit my Elsie. Sit, sit and drink this.”

I lift the milky brown liquid to my lips breathing in a magical spicy aroma.

“What is it?” I whisper to Elsie


The first I’ve tasted. We only have tea at home and I’m seldom allowed a sip. The forbidden drink tastes dark and woody but I swallow it all. I feel I’ve passed an important test. I’m a grown up at last. Wait till my sister hears about this, I think. Meanwhile Mrs. Dolinski is ripping the cellophane from a double pack of Sally
Ann cakes. She gives one to each of us. Heaven.

On the next visit, Elsie takes me into the basement, reached from a trap door hidden beneath the kitchen rug. Tiny steps curve down into a stone cellar. Even though the windows are half-blocked with snow, the sunlight weaves a few pale patterns on the floor giving us enough light to see. I look around the deep stone box. It’s like the cave of a mountain troll. In the shadows at one end, the furnace stretches out its many arms, and, at the other end, a tower of wooden crates rises to the ceiling. Blue and white bottles on a side table wink at us in the snowy light. But the most interesting items are the five roly-poly wooden barrels, almost as high as me, lined up down the centre of the room. The barrels look like five fat dwarfs. The top of each one is covered with a square of black fabric.

I lift a cloth and lean over the circle of darkness. The smell is thick and sweet, like cough medicine. The liquid comes almost to the top, inky bluish black and shimmering slightly as if an invisible hand is stirring from below. A few tiny bubbles bob up and I quickly drop the cover.

Isn’t this against the law?” I say to Elsie trying not to sound suspicious. I know all about the bootlegging of wine because I often listen in as my father discusses it with his policeman friends.

“It’s for the family. It’s not illegal if it’s for the family.” Clearly Elsie also knows her criminal code.

“He’s making an awful lot for just one family.”

“My papa has a magic potion, and when he uses it, everything is legal.”

Before I can ask about the magic potion, her father calls us upstairs. He’s set the table with plates and cups. Elsie’s mother is not home. It‘s Sunday and she’s at mass. The store is closed.

Liddle, you want coffee?”

“Yes please.”

“Sit here. Eat those donuts.’

He sits at the table with us and grins. “In the war, Polish people no got coffee,”
he says. I’m not sure why that could be a hardship, so I say nothing. “Lotta time, no food, never mind coffee,” he goes on.

I feel I’m drinking liquid earth but I force it down. I’m positive it’s making me smarter. I’m turning more grown up every day.

“But when you hiding,” Elsie’s father says, “you so scared, coffee no matter. Even food no matter.” He smiles at Elsie and she smiles back. He takes out a pouch and begins rolling a cigarette. “No tobacco either,” he says.

I study him. He doesn’t look like a war hero. He’s hefty and short and when he walks, moves from side to side. He has on the same thick clothes he wears for his job at the shipyard—heavy black wool pants and layers of plaid shirts. His head seems to grow straight from his shoulders and his mouth is wide. When he grins, and he grins often, I glimpse a gold tooth. A golden grin, I think.

At recess, a week after my dad tells me to stay away from the Castle Confectionary, Elsie asks me to visit the next Sunday afternoon. I smile happily at her because I’ve figured out a way around my father’s orders. It’s taken a week of hard thinking. His words, don’t go into that store, drum through my mind even when I’m in bed. But, one night, just before sleep, a flash of brain power hits me. I realize he said nothing about going into the kitchen. The kitchen, I reason, is part of the house and a house is not a store. So the kitchen is OK. And, what’s more, the store is closed on Sundays, so I couldn’t go into the store even if I wanted to.

“I’ll be over after lunch on Sunday,” I say

We head for the basement immediately closing the trap behind us. However, just as we reach the bottom of the stairs, we hear the blast of a whistle. Big black boots run through the snow outside the windows and heavy thumps come from overhead. I climb on a wooden crate and look out. Three policemen are lined up across the back yard. Chief Reynolds is waving his arms and blowing a whistle.

Elsie begins to spin in a dithering circle. She’s wailing. “Police. No, no. Hide, hide.”

She pushes me behind the pile of crates and dives in after me just as a square of light speeds across the floor and the trap is flung open with a crash. We crouch like mice against the stone wall. Elsie has her head down in her hands, but I can see everything through the wooden slats. To my horror, the police chief, followed by my father and Sergeant McKee, run down the narrow steps.

Mr. Dolinski runs after them, talking fast. “Not vine, No no. No vine. Never. Ween gart. Ween.”

The chief strides to a barrel and tosses off the cloth. He sticks in his finger and tastes. “Right. Here’s the evidence and lots of it. There’s enough wine here for the Russian army. This should convict our Pollock friend.” He turns to my father, “Marsden!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Get upstairs on the phone. Tell Banning to send the truck to haul this stuff away.’ My father clatters up the stairs.

While the chief is throwing the cloth covers on the floor and tasting the contents of each barrel with his finger, old Sergeant McKee is stalking around the basement. He picks up two bottles from the table and puts them in his jacket pockets. He puts two more bottles under one arm. He then heads toward our end of the room. When he gets to the crates, he looks directly at them, and I’m sure he sees us through the slats. I shrink even smaller thinking this is the way a mouse feels when it’s cornered by the cat. The chief is now halfway up the stairs and yells, “Come along, McKee!”

Elsie’s father is now alone in the centre of the room. Elsie crawls out but he shakes his head at her and waves her back in. For such a burly man he moves fast, taking a glass bottle from a shelf and splashing liquid into each barrel.
“It’s the magic potion,” Elsie whispers to me. A nasty sharp smell slowly pervades the room. I cover my mouth and nose but the sickening odour moves through my fingers and into my head.

I can hear Mr. Dolinski shouting as he runs back upstairs. “Come down, police. Come down, police. Ween gart, ween gart.’ When he reappears a minute later with old Sergeant McKee, he’s still yelling. “See, ween gart. I make to sell in store.”

“What the hell,” says Sergeant McKee. “What a stink. It smells like…’
He sticks a finger in the closest barrel and tastes. “Vinegar. God in heaven, it’s vinegar.’ He puts a finger in each barrel. “All vinegar.”

“I sell in store,” says Elsie’s father. “Good ween gart.”

“Christ.” McKee turns and runs up the stairs.

Next, Chief Reynolds comes down, tastes the first barrel, makes a face and retreats. Mr. Dolinski follows him up the stairs, one hand behind his back flapping at us to stay in hiding. Boots bang and thump above with a lot of yelling mixed in, but after a long time, when I hear the roar of motors in the back lane, I know they’ve left at last. We creep out on our hands and knees. Elsie’s face is streaked with dust and tears. She flies up the stairs crying for her father. I follow. No one is in the kitchen but, through the open door to the store, I see Mr. Dolinski looking out the side window, his large arm around Elsie’s shoulders. He’s grinning.

I grab my coat from the pile in the back shed, and shoot outside like a bird from a trap.
My father can’t stop laughing. My sister and I, in the kitchen doing the supper dishes, see him through the open door to the living room. “Why the old man left him alone in the basement, I’ll never know,” my father says. “Leaving him with his wine. And the crafty blighter just splashed some vinegar in each barrel and that turns everything to vinegar. You can’t arrest someone for making vinegar.”

“But didn’t he have some bottles of wine already made up?” says my Uncle Everett. He and my Aunt Sissy are over for Sunday supper.

“Oh, family use. Can’t get a conviction on three on four bottles.”

Aunt Sissy speaks next. “I don’t see why you’re bothering poor immigrants at a’. Aren’t they’re just trying to get along? And on a Sunday an a’,”

“Och, no, Sissy. We’re not sic monsters and on a Sunday morning, the wife and kiddy go off to church, so we spared them the upset. But Chief Reynolds loves a raid.” He starts to laugh again slapping his knee. “When the lads at the Fort William station hear about this…’

Sergeant McKee and a young policeman called Constable Aduno are at the front door. McKee carries two Eaton’s shopping bags that he lifts into the air as he steps inside. “Ween gart,” he calls out.

My mother comes into the kitchen. “Leave the dishes, girls. Come and try a sip of wine.” I toss the dish towel on the rack. There’s never been wine in the house as far as I remember. My mother makes us carry out some cups and water glasses on the tea tray. Constable Aduno opens a bottle using a twisty metal tool he takes from his pocket. When Sergeant McKee looks at me, he gives me a big wink. I quickly look at the floor.

“To the Poles,” says Sergeant McKee raising his glass. “God bless them.”

Constable Aduno takes a sip. “Not bad. The old con artist knew what he was doing.” He takes a gulp. “Excellent. He could’ve been Italian.”

I taste a bitty drop from my tea cup. Sour. My sister is making a screwed up face and sticking out her tongue. This stuff tastes worse than the vinegar smelled, worse than coffee, worse than the worst medicine, worse than dandelion juice.

My aunt and mother are also unimpressed.
“I’d rather have a nice cup of tea,’ says Aunt Sissy.

In bed that night it sounds as if a grown-up party is going full swing downstairs. Aunt Sissy sings, “Stop your Ticklin’, Jock,” her special party song. My mother sings “The Little Red Hen” and my Uncle Everett belts out “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World,” my favourite of all the grown-up songs. I can hear my father laughing. Every once in a while I catch old Sergeant McKee’s voice chanting, “Ween gart, ween gart.” If he spied me behind the crates, he didn’t tell my father. I send him a million thought messages. Thank-you, thank you.

I think about Elsie. Did I ever mention to her my dad was a policeman? I don’t recall, but she’s sure to find out one day. Until then, there’s a chance for more coffee and treats at the Castle Confectionary.

Sleep is sliding over me like a magic spell. I snuggle into the blankets. My sister snores beside me with her mouth open.

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