A week for writers and lit lovers

Sunday, September 21, 2014

An absolutely wonderful story by Amy Jones.

Amy Jones, originally from Halifax, now lives in Thunder Bay. In 2006 she won the CBC Literary Award for Short Story in English. Her short fiction collection What the Boys Like was the winner of the 2009 Metcalf-Rooke Award.  I Think the Kids are in Trouble was first published in the Summer 2013 edition of Fiddlehead.

I Think the Kids are in Trouble
By Amy Jones
The baby falls down the stairs. There are carpet burns on her elbows and knees, a scrape just above her eye, jutting into her eyebrow. Blood leaking down her face. A miracle it’s not worse. Everyone runs around, not really doing much. The baby screeches, red-faced, indignant. How dare they let this happen to her? Pauline holds the baby, bouncing her up and down in her arms while she argues with her daughter, Carly, who is the baby’s mother, about whether or not she needs stitches.
            “It won’t stop bleeding!” Carly is yelling. She is frantic. She can’t stand still. Five minutes earlier, she had been out on the back deck drinking beer and playing Scrabble with her sisters while the baby played with her six year old cousin at the top of the stairs. Carly is young, and she hasn’t figured out appropriate levels of mothering: it’s all too much or too little. “Mom, what if she has a concussion? What if she has internal bleeding? Mom? Mom!
            “Shh, shh, it’s alright.” Pauline cradles the baby against her shoulder. “You’re scaring her.” The baby cries, blood spills onto Pauline’s blouse, red bleeding into white. Then, once all the blood and crying has stopped and the baby is asking for “juju,” which is her word for apple juice, they sit her on the couch in front of Dora the Explorer.
            “Donde esta Dora?” The baby squeals with laughter. All is forgiven.
            Pauline takes her blouse off in the kitchen and runs it under cold water with some dish soap. She can see Carly and her sisters on the back porch through the open window. “She skidded right down the stairs on her face,” Carly says uneasily. She looks as though she doesn’t know whether to be worried or amused. Her sisters shrug, take drinks of beer, fiddle with their Scrabble tiles. They’ve been through this before.
            “EXIT,” says Naomi. “Triple word score.”
            “Fuck you, you slut,” Eva says.
Pauline drops the soap container in the sink and they all look over. “Mom, for God’s sake, put your shirt back on,” Carly says, leaning back on her chair. Then they are all laughing, and Pauline’s skin turns cold. She holds the dripping blouse to her chest, feeling the weight of her sagging breasts against the backs of her hands

            Pauline sees her daughters once a year, on Canada Day weekend, when they come with children but without husbands, driving themselves from the airport in rented SUVs to swim in the lake and read magazines and get drunk while Pauline looks after the children. This year there are six children, including the baby, who is not yet two, and twelve-year-old Suzanne, who is Carly’s husband’s daughter from a previous marriage about which Pauline knows nothing. In between, there are Eva’s three boys: Kyle, Kaleb, and Kohl, barreling up and down the stairs, wrestling on the furniture, tornados of red hair and freckled limbs. And there is Naomi’s daughter Maria, dark and quiet and always lurking around corners, or standing right behind Pauline when she turns around.
            “My dear, you’re just as quiet as a mouse!” Pauline says, holding her hand against her beating heart. Maria just stares, her dark eyes wide and unblinking, her small hands balled into little fists at her sides. Naomi met Maria’s father while she was building a school in Bolivia with a volunteer organization that attracted a lot of young white boys with dreadlocks. He was a local; he called himself a poet but no poems were ever referenced. Just gambling and fighting. Naomi came home with a scar on her neck and a baby in her belly. She didn’t want to talk about either.
            Maria had been with the baby when she fell. Now she sits with the baby on the floor in the living room, watching cartoons. She feeds her processed cheese slices from a plastic margarine tub. Neon-tinged sheets of cellophane scattered at her feet as she stares intently at the baby with those dark, unblinking eyes. Pauline rarely admits it to herself, but she doesn’t love Maria. She might even go so far as to say she dislikes her. Even Suzanne, teenager of questionable lineage, holds a closer spot to Pauline’s heart than Maria, daughter of her daughter.
Max would have said it was because Maria’s father was a foreigner. “You Canadians all think you’re so tolerant,” he’d say. “That is, until some dark-skinned man impregnates your daughter.” Although, Pauline thinks, he hadn’t been around to see it happen to his daughter. If Max had been alive when Naomi came home pregnant, he likely would have gone down to Bolivia and run the guy through with a sword.
            “One more,” Maria says, forcing a piece of cheese into the baby’s mouth. “Just one more.”
            “Mfghmf,” says the baby, spitting cheese across the room. She smiles, orange drool running over her chin.
            “Don’t spit it out,” Maria says, crawling over the carpet to scoop up the stray pieces. “You need to eat all of it.”
            “Maria, honey.” Pauline is standing in the doorway. She has added her blouse to the laundry and is now wearing an old, faded t-shirt that says Scandinavian Home Society on the front. The shirt used to be white but now resembles the colour of dishwater. “If you feed her any more cheese slices, she’s going to turn into one.”
            Maria stares at the cheese in her hand. Pauline imagines Naomi, harried and annoyed, chiding Maria with similar threats: if you keep making that face, it’ll stay that way. If you eat too many cheese slices, you’ll turn into one. Then Maria slowly and deliberately peels back the cellophane and moves to stuff the cheese slice into the baby’s mouth.
            “Maria!” Pauline grabs her arm. “Listen to me when I’m talking to you.” Maria opens her palm and the cheese falls onto the floor. They both stare at it, uncurling slowly against the green carpet fibres. Then Maria steps forward and mashes it down with her foot.
            “Being a cheese slice would be better than being a baby,” she says, still looking at the floor.
            Pauline lets go of her arm. “Please clean that up,” she says. Maria looks up at her with complete indifference. Pauline doesn’t know what else to do, so she picks Maria up and carries her against her shoulder to the back deck. Maria just hangs there, a dead weight, her feet bouncing against Pauline’s thighs.
            “I think your kid is in trouble,” she says to Naomi. “You might need to keep an eye on her for a bit.”
            Naomi looks up, pushes mirrored sunglasses back into glossy hair. “Why?” she asks. “What’s wrong, baby?” She stands up, runs her hand over Maria’s head. “Mom, she’s fine. She’s sleeping.”
            “She is not sleeping,” Pauline says firmly. She jostles Maria against her shoulder. Maria makes a little snoring noise and then sighs, wrapping her arms around Pauline’s neck.
            Naomi laughs a little. Catches her sisters’ eyes with that look: Mom’s losing it. Call the nearest loony bin. “She’s obviously sleeping,” she says. “Just put her in my room.”
            “She’s not sleeping,” says Pauline, but she takes her away anyway, back into the house and up to Naomi’s old attic room. As she climbs the stairs, she can feel Maria’s tiny fingernails clawing into her back, and when she lays Maria back on the old quilt-covered bed, she swears she sees the little brat give a secret smile into the pillow in the dusty sunlight floating in through the tiny attic window.
“I think the kids are in trouble.” This has always been Pauline’s opening line when she talks to Max. She rarely does it anymore, but in the first few years after he died she would talk to him all the time, lying on the bed that they had shared for what was, by anyone’s standards, an unfairly short amount of time, and staring over at the place where his head should have been. She never reported the good news: the gymnastics medals, the glowing report cards, the graduations, engagements, and pregnancies. After all these years, she was still too angry with him to give him that.
But when the tragedies happened. This was when she missed him the most. “I think the kids are in trouble,” she’d said when Carly failed grade four, when Naomi broke her femur snowboarding, when Eva got brought home by the cops. When the three of them got German measles one summer, mottled rashes covering their pale, hot little bodies, the whites of their eyes turning pink as their heads lolled against the pillow. It was ice for their fevers, mop buckets for their vomit, and Pauline dead on her feet in the kitchen, using up her own sick days and slurping from tepid, half-finished bowls of chicken broth between changing the bed linens and refilling the bathtub. On the phone with the neighbour, laughing awkwardly and telling her she was “getting by,” all the while trying to subtly nudge out an opinion on whether or not this neighbour, this random person next door, figured it was time for a trip to the ER. What Pauline thought but never said was: this isn’t fair. There is supposed to be two of us. There is supposed to be someone else here to temper this fear.
Max had been a violinist with the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra. She met him in Toronto, when he came to her first year music appreciation class at U of T to give a guest lecture. He had been friends with her professor, Dr. Nurev, who at the time was the current subject of Pauline’s fantasies, with his turtleneck sweaters and curly hair and the way he said “Pauline,” the way his Eastern European accent made her name sound like a Russian princess. Max was also Eastern European, from the Czech Republic, but where Dr. Nurev was soft, he was hard. He had eyes like slabs of concrete and he looked at everyone else in the class but her while he talked about the great opera singers of the 19th century, how their voices had been trained to be so precise that they came closer to musical perfection than any musical instrument ever could. Pauline, feeling stupid in her brown wool skirt and plain shoes at the back of the classroom, wished she could go back in time and really dedicate herself to something, anything, instead of just spending her life daydreaming about professors. After class, she waited for Max and tried to think of some intelligent question to ask him that would make him see past her ordinary face and instead see her potential, see her for the diamond in the rough she hoped that was.
“Come with me,” was all he said when he saw her standing outside the classroom. And she did. Back to his hotel room, where they made love on the unmade bed and then drank whiskey and cola looking out over the pedestrians Christmas shopping on Bloor. Then back to Thunder Bay, where he bought them a house on the lake and a piano for the living room. A wedding in their front yard, by the garden, attended only by three of Max’s colleagues and a distant cousin of Pauline’s whose husband worked at the paper mill. Three babies in quick succession, three solemn little dark-haired girls, all beautiful and smart like their father.
And then a snowy night and a patch of ice, no anti-lock brakes, no airbags, no seatbelt, even. A hydro pole. A broken windshield. That’s where it ended. That’s as far as Pauline was allowed to go with him.
“I thought you’d think I was ordinary,” Pauline said that day in the hotel, shyly propped up on one elbow with the sheet tucked demurely under her armpits, even though only minutes earlier Max’s mouth had been on her nipple, biting.
“I do,” said Max. He rolled over on his back, lit a cigarette. The hurt must have shown on her face, because then he said “No, you misunderstand me. That is what makes you extraordinary.” He ran the back of his hand down her cheek. “There are far too few ordinary people left in the world.” Pauline didn’t understand, but she decided to take it as a compliment, and pressed her head down against his chest in what she hoped was the most ordinary way possible.
In between her daughter’s visits, when the house is all Pauline’s, she lives in the empty space as if it were a church. Each move she makes is deliberate, precise, calculating. Her bathroom is full of fresh flowers, her compost bin nothing but a discrete pile of eggshells, orange peels and coffee grounds. The radio comes on at exactly 4pm for Voyage North on CBC. Once a week she carefully dusts Max’s things, which she keeps like artifacts in a museum: the piano, long out of tune, keys yellowing; his violin slowly turning to dust in its case of glass. She deliberates carefully before moving even one book on the shelf. Even something as simple as preparing a meal or watering the plants takes on an air of ritual, a higher purpose. When her daughters and their families arrive, their noise and their carelessness feel almost blasphemous.
In the kitchen, Pauline makes iced tea and carries it out onto the back porch. The girls have finished their Scrabble game and now are talking about their husbands, who all work too much, spend too little time with their kids, are letting themselves go. Pauline finds it so hard to believe that her daughters have all turned into clichés. Even Naomi, who was so wild and idealistic in her twenties, is now married to a dermatologist with sleep apnea.
            “It used to keep me up at night,” she is saying. “Not the snoring, but the worrying. Every five minutes, I’m wondering, is he still breathing? Now sometimes I secretly hope that he’s not.”
            The girls all laugh. Pauline sets the iced tea down on the table between them.
            “You’ve always been a light sleeper, honey,” Pauline says, catching Naomi’s eye. She wants to change the subject, to salvage a conversation that she feels has turned crass. “Remember those camping trips we used to take to Lac des Mille Lacs every summer? Even the owls would keep you awake.”
            The girls all look at each other, roll their eyes as if they are still teenagers. “Yeah,” says Naomi. “I remember.” She looks at her feet, resting against the wooden patio table in front of her, and her face changes, for just a second. Pauline used to dread those camping trips, lugging half their house in an old station wagon to a tiny cabin in the middle of nowhere just to give her girls a chance to be one with nature, away from the television, to chase bugs and collect wildflowers and use their imagination. Now, seeing Naomi’s face, she wonders if they actually hated it as much as she did: the oppressive isolation, the nights that were so dark that sometimes it seemed like their darkness would erase your very soul if you weren’t careful, with nowhere to turn for relief. But they were only children. What could they know about darkness?
Even as she thinks it, she knows how ridiculous it sounds. Of course children know darkness. They are born from it. Especially hers.
            After Max died, everyone thought she would leave. Take those girls and run, back to the south, somewhere warmer, more forgiving. But she stayed. Not even five years she’d had with Max. Time that had spun away from her like the string of a kite.
            Max hadn’t wanted Thunder Bay. He had wanted a city, Toronto maybe, or better yet, Montreal—somewhere urban, slightly European, progressive. But Thunder Bay, as it turned out, was the only place that wanted him. Max’s gratitude was underwhelming. “Fat fucking Canadian redneck pigs,” Max would say when he was angry, when he’d had too much to drink. “This place. Grit and slush and rock. The colour sucked right out of everything.” People didn’t understand art, they didn’t understand him, they didn’t understand life. They walked around with their senses dulled, their heads bowed against the cold. But Pauline saw something different, something in the vastness of the landscape that tugged at some primal part of her memory that she didn’t understand. Sometimes at night she would stand on the back porch facing the lake, the outline of the Sleeping Giant barely visible where the water met the sky, letting the night air pressing in on her until she was dizzy and short of breath, until she felt like was floating through the darkness and no longer sure which way was up. Then she’d come back into the house, the warmth, the glow, Max sitting by the fire with the radio on, a child or two crawling on the floor, and she was home, and safe, and her feet were firmly on the ground.
            “Romantic bullshit,” Max said when she’d tried to explain it to him. “Nature is nature. It’s what’s in here,” he tapped his head. “That’s what sets us apart.” Pauline wonders how much of Max would have changed, had he lived. In her mind, he was still twenty five and full of passion and ideals. She sometimes forgets that if he had lived he would be old now, just another one of those old men in hats sitting on benches in the mall outside Zellers, sipping their coffees—distrustful of youth, scared of new technology, writing angry letters to the editor about the government and shuffling down to the 55 Plus Centre for Tai Chi on Wednesday nights. Would Pauline still have loved him at sixty, when his eyes started to soften and his back started to bend? She doesn’t know. All she has is thirty years of empty space.
While the girls are still outside, Pauline eats in front of the refrigerator: string cheese, pepperettes, juice boxes, little tubes of yogurt, all the snacks that are meant for the kids. She hides behind the door so her daughters can’t see her through the window, shoving food into her mouth, not tasting any of it. She hopes it will fill her up enough so that she doesn’t eat too much at supper. She can’t stand another meal of disapproving looks, of pig snorts, of lectures on the links between obesity and heart disease. Pauline knows she is overweight, but sometimes her daughters are just mean. Thin, and mean.
The girls all have money. Pauline never had to worry about that. Carly and Naomi both married into it. Eva made her own, as an investment banker or financial advisor, someone who plays with other people’s money. They offer to fly Pauline all over the country, to stay in their suburban houses and go to their children’s soccer games; to visit museums and eat brunch in fancy restaurants. But Pauline can’t bring herself to step into any of their lives, even just for a few days. She doesn’t want to know what they do with their time, their pilates classes and family photographs from trips to Disney World, their perfectly decorated houses, their alopecic husbands. She doesn’t want to know how ordinary they really are.
            When Pauline turns around, Maria is behind her. Her short hair is sticking up on one side, and Pauline wonders for a moment if she really had been sleeping. “What are you doing?” Maria asks Pauline.
Pauline shuts the refrigerator door. The condiments ring softly against each other. “Just having a snack,” she says, swallowing. She wipes at the corners of her mouth.
“You shouldn’t eat that stuff,” Maria says. She grabs an apple from the fruit bowl on the kitchen table and carries it to the sink to wash it. “Mommy says it’s poisonous.” She carefully washes the apple and dries it, and then takes a bite, looking back to the living room where the baby is still sitting in front of the television, enraptured by Thomas the Tank Engine. Pauline suddenly realizes that had she pictured the wrong scenario when she was imagining Naomi’s threats to Maria. She hears her now, in her head: don’t eat that processed junk. It’s like poison. Those cheese slices. Maria thought she was poisoning the baby with those cheese slices.
Pauline looks out the window. Her head throbs. Her daughters are in the same chairs they have occupied all afternoon, although now they talk in whispers, leaning in to each other the way they would as children, excluding her from their secret club. Beyond that, Eva’s boys have commandeered the shoreline for some epic sand battle. They point tree branches at each other and dive behind rocks, pouncing on each other like a litter of puppies. The baby, still cooing in front of the television. Suzanne, no one has seen come out of her room since she arrived.
Maria takes another bite of the apple. Juice runs down over her chin. She stares at Pauline, her eyes cold. I did it, her eyes say. Ask me. I dare you.
“Maria,” Pauline says. She squats down and looks her granddaughter in the face. ‘Did you push the baby down the stairs?” Even as she says it, she doesn’t know how she got there. She feels something snap in her brain.
Then: “Mom!” Naomi’s voice bursts in through the open window. “What the hell?” Instantly she is in the kitchen, daughter in her arms, staring at Pauline. Disgusted. Pauline gradually straightens up, feeling her knees crack as she does. She holds onto the counter to steady herself.
Eva and Carly follow Naomi inside. “What happened?” Carly asks. In the kitchen and out of the sun, their bikini-clad bodies look strangely inappropriate. They stand side by side, arms crossed identically across their chests, bare brown torsos turning to goosebumps in the chill of the air conditioning. Naomi backs up a few steps to stand beside them. The three of them, a united front.
“Mom accused Maria of pushing your baby down the stairs,” Naomi says. Maria, clinging to her mother’s neck, starts to cry, great wails of fury bellowing from her tiny frame. Carly rushes into the living room and snatches the baby from in front of the television, and the baby starts to cry too, drowning out Maria. The noise draws the boys inside and even Suzanne, that tall, blonde anomaly, lopes out of her room, one earphone still shoved in her ear, the other dangling down the front of her sweater, bouncing against her tiny breasts as she walks. The all stare at Pauline, her back still to the fridge, her over-laundered t-shirt, her graying hair, her fat thighs sticking together at the hem of her walking shorts.
“How could you say that to her?” Naomi says. She strokes Maria’s hair. Maria wails even louder.
Eva shakes her head. “Honestly. What is wrong with you?”
Pauline just stands there, hands clasped in front of her, tongue thickening in her mouth, stuttering half-formed excuses that don’t make sense, even to her. Eventually the kids get bored, start filtering out of the kitchen. Naomi and Maria the last to leave, Maria’s little red face staring back at her over Naomi’s shoulder, her soft pink lips pushed together, her eyes filled with nothing but innocence and confusion.
She’s right, Pauline thinks. It’s not them. There is nothing wrong with them. It’s me. It has always been me
“I’ll try to be more romantic,” Max used to say when Pauline would cry. Those six words, more romantic than anything else he could have done. Scotch on his breath, hands on her neck, whispering in her ear.
More romantic than anything else he could have done. Except dying.
They had friends over for dinner, an English professor and his wife, who Pauline had known from U of T. Max, angry about an article in The Chronicle Journal suggesting the city should cut funding to the symphony after a couple of poorly received programmes, had drank too much, called Pauline fat and stupid when she suggested that maybe the city was not ready for some of their more experimental works.
“We are trying to break new musical ground here,” he said, a little too loudly. “And what do you want? Fucking Pachelbel’s Canon, over and over.”
“It’s nice. It’s a nice song,” Pauline said, her face bent over her plate, pretending to rearrange her napkin on her lap. “It was our wedding song.” It wasn’t. Their wedding song had been something Max had composed, something that had sounded to Pauline like icicles breaking off of eavestroughing in the dead of winter. It was the wrong thing to say, but she couldn’t stop it. She was just trying to hold it together, at least until their friends were gone.
“Well,” Max said. He reached out and tilted her chin upward to look her straight in the eyes. Pauline blinked back tears, slumping under Max’s touch, feeling her body folding in on itself as he stared her down. “You can have your nice songs,” he said quietly. “Yes? You can have them all to yourself, you simple Canadian cow.” Then he threw his napkin on the table and walked out of the house. Their friends, embarrassed, looked at each other, trying to find some excuse to leave. Pauline cleared her throat, straightened her back, told herself that it was okay, he just needed some air, he was just so upset about everything.
“So, who wants coffee?” she asked brightly. “I’m going to make coffee.”
“Maybe we should…” The English professor and his wife both shuffled in their seats.
“No, no,” said Pauline. “It’s okay, really. He’s fine. Let’s have coffee! Coffee will be great.” She stood up, began clearing the dishes from the table and arranging them in a stack. “I’ll bring the French press out here, you have to see it, it’s so fantastic. Oh, and we have some Bailey’s, if you’d like.” Her arms awkwardly stacked with dishes, she headed for the kitchen. “Coffee and Bailey’s,” she said over her shoulder. “That will be a nice way to end the night, don’t you think?”
But when she came back out to the table with her French press in hand, her friends already had their coats on. “It’s late,” the English professor said apologetically. “The babysitter… you know.”
“Of course, of course,” said Pauline. She kissed each of them on the cheek and held the door for them, and they all promised they would do it again sometime as they dashed from the house to their car in the freezing rain. When they were gone, Pauline sat at the table with the coffee and the Bailey’s and drank the whole pot, watching the door for Max until finally, jittery and drunk, she crawled on hands and knees up the stairs to their bedroom. Only to stare at the ceiling, playing the conversation back in her head over and over, trying to figure out where she had gone wrong, what she could have said, what she could have done to save it. In the end, she knew, it wouldn’t have mattered. Times like that, with Max, she might as well not have even been there for all the agency she had in the way things transpired. She was the sponge that absorbed all of Max’s anger, all his pain and disappointment. If she couldn’t even do that for him, she had nothing else to offer.
She doesn’t remember falling asleep, only waking to the lights of the police car. Flashing red and blue, piercing the darkness of the lakeshore, glaring off the windows. Eva, four years old, already at the front door when Pauline got downstairs, wide-eyed at the large blonde policeman with the red face knocking at the door. Naomi, only three, hanging back, clinging to Pauline’s leg. Carly, the baby, was still asleep upstairs, would sleep through it all. And then. The we’re sorry ma’ams and the they did everything they coulds and the is there anyone you can calls. Pauline, numb. Shaking her head. The world crystallizing around her, that moment so precise that no other moment would come close to its horrible perfection.
            That night, one of their neighbours sets off fireworks, and they all walk down to the edge of the lake to watch. Pauline follows behind, tentatively, keeping a distance from her daughters. The kids have already forgotten the incident in the kitchen; they circle around her like little dancing mice, asking for the Jolly Ranchers they all saw her slip into the pocket of her sweater earlier. But her daughters will not forget. They will treat her the same way they always do, with appropriate amounts of forced daughterly devotion; they will love her mildly, out of obligation. But they will keep Pauline’s failure in their head, archived among the catalogue of her other extensive failures, to bring out when the situation warrants.
            Pauline watches them by the edge of the lake, with their matching brown hair and reserved stances, and wonders how much they remember of their father and his failures. Next to nothing, she would guess, by the way they talk about him. The great violinist, the handsome European, the idealist ahead of his time. But they only think this way because of what Pauline has told them. She is one hundred percent responsible for the father they have created in their heads.
            “Come on, Nana,” the oldest boy, Kyle, says, tugging at her sleeve. “Don’t be stingy, Nana!”
            “Yeah, don’t be tingy,” Kohl, the smallest, says, his mouth not quite able to form the word. And then the chant: “Na-na, Na-na,” sounding closer to a playground taunt than her name, so infectious that even Maria, still clinging to Naomi’s leg and eyeing Pauline with uncertainty, softly joins in.

            Pauline makes a big scene out of relenting, and gives them each a wrapped candy—even Suzanne, who now has both earphones firmly tucked in her ears. They all hug her dutifully, the sky exploding with colour and light as they run to meet their mothers at the edge of the lake.

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