Winner of 2017 Giller Prize

Winner of 2017 Giller Prize
Michael Redhill for his novel Bellevue Square

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Morphing. A Short Story

The economy crashes in 2008 but James and Mira Lorcas, an Arizona couple, handle the situation in a very creative way.A winner in the 2015 Canadian Authors Association Ten Stories High contest.
Morphing
By Joan M. Baril
In 2005, in the early hours, a July storm blew through Tucson, Arizona. The locals call such a storm a monsoon: heavy downpour, thunder and hail. When James Lorcas got to his usual spot outside the Home Depot, the parking lot was a sea an inch deep. As he stood with his buddies, all shivering in the chill, he saw the first blue reflected in the water.
            The wavering colour reminded him of Mira’s tearful eyes when he had snapped at her that morning, said her house idea was the craziest goddamn stupid thing he had ever heard. Then he put his arms around her and they swayed for a minute in the middle of the small kitchen. She was just scared. They’d heard shots in the night, somewhere close. Their neighbourhood was getting worse and she wanted out.
She turned to finish packing Sammy’s school lunch. “We got to take any chance,” she said. “We’ll lose Sammy. You, of all people, should know that.” Her voice hardened. “He’s wearing that red tee shirt all the time. You know it’s a gang colour. The Bloods. If you don’t do something about it, I will.”
James had swung out of the door and down the stairs to walk two miles in the dangerous dark to the Home Depot parking lot. He didn’t believe Mira would go ahead with the silly house idea on her own. And he had no worries about her leaving him. They’d been a strong couple for twenty years. They’d been in the same class in high school. She was a beautiful sight, a quick moving, laughing girl with dark,  coffee-coloured skin, big blue eyes and black hair. He followed her from class to class just to see her fast swaying walk, hear her laughter and her soft pattering voice as she talked with her girl friends. He loved her absolutely.
She was right about Sammy. The once cheery boy was slipping away from them, getting sullen and mouthy. James himself had got into gangs when he was much younger than Sam. He started when he was ten, a smart-ass street brat, getting paid small change as a runner and then, when he grew up, a low-level street-corner pusher. Crack was just coming in and, it seemed, overnight, gun battles all around. Every evening, when he was eighteen, he stood at the corner of Grant and Alverson, one jacket pocket full of cocaine packs and the other full of money. He might as well have had a target on his back. Mira, the same age as he but smarter, much smarter, gave him the word. Break free. Get out. Go to the army base in Sierra Vista. Join up. If he didn’t, she’d walk. He knew she was right. The army saved him.
Mira saved him.
They’d married when he was in the army. After he was released, Mira helped him set up his electrical business and, fifteen years later, she helped fold it up when it went bankrupt. She always cheered him on, told him it couldn’t be long before a good job would open for him, maybe in one of those big construction companies that were covering the Tucson hills with new houses. The Home Depot gig was temporary.

She’d been saying that for a year.
He set his toolbox on the pavement in a dry spot. Soon, the sun would suck up the water and drop the day’s heat hard upon him and his buddies. All he wanted now was an early customer so he wouldn’t have to endure the endless standing, unshaded, holding up his sign, forcing himself take another broiling hour and then another before he gave up and headed home.
            A beat-up Ford Ranger careened into the parking lot from the highway. Automatically, he and the two other black guys moved back. A few yards over, the five or six Mexicans did the same. Sometimes, on wet mornings, some stupid white dude would swerve in, ripping through the closest puddle, sending a wave of water towards them, then speed off, laughing out the window, honking the horn and flipping them the bird, leaving their shouted obscenities behind.
But this truck slowed, stopped and a hand beckoned James over. A man peered through a couple of inches of open glass, “How much you askin’?”
“Ten an hour,” James said. “Work guaranteed.”  This was a lie. He never gave anyone his real name or address and always took cash.
“You really a certified electrician?”
James turned his cardboard sign to show a copy of the certificate he had received long ago but doctored with a different name. “Yes sir, I am. Trained by the U. S. Army itself.”
“Ten bucks huh? What about those guys?” He pointed to the group of Mexicans. “Are they cheaper?”
“Ask them.”
“Probably not certified. Right?”
“Probably,” said James.
The driver stared at the Mexicans who stared back. “Probably don’t speak English, huh?”
James shrugged. “Don’t know.” But he knew the man was right.
“You’re a pretty big guy,” the man said. “I’m remodeling an old house up on University. Can you get into a small attic space?”
“Sure,” said James. “I been every space you can name, I’m an expert at old houses.” This last was not a lie.
“I’ll give you eight,” said the man.
“Deal,” said James. He picked up his tool kit, slung it in the truck box, climbed in beside the driver.


Mira waited at the cafeteria cash register, watching the summer-school kids drift in for lunch, call to their friends, organize their complicated seating arrangements before buying fries, natchos, corn bread, tacos and enchiladas covered with searing hot sauce. Trays teetered with Dr. Pepper and bottles of sweet tea, the Tucson addiction. “Hey ya, Miz Lorcas,” they said as they pushed their trays toward her. “How you today?”
Foothills High School was the best: friendly kids, mostly white but quite a few blacks and Mexicans, efficient staff always on the job, no graffiti, never food thrown around, never a fight in the cafeteria, no needles in the rest rooms. Above all, no red t-shirts.
At the end of her shift, as she hung up her apron, Mira waited for the commercial. The radio was always on in the kitchen; but when the commercial started, about every fifteen minutes, all noise stopped.
Think you can’t afford a new house? Banks won’t talk to you? Think again! Check this out! A beautiful hundred-thousand-dollar home for 500 a month. That’s right. Five hundred! Un-be-lievable! Less than rent. No down payment. No, no, amigo! Cash tight? No job? No assets? No problem! Casson Properties will show you gracious living. A safe neighbourhood. Visit our models. High-tech kitchens, central air...
The ad ended with the address of Casson Properties but Mira did not stay to listen. She had that part memorized. She had already visited the model homes. They were everything she had ever wanted and more.
Tim, the cafeteria manager, caught her on the way out. “I see you’re hanging around listening to that ad again. You know it’s a scam, Mira.”
“You told me that before,” Mira said but she smiled. Tim was a great guy and a great boss. She liked him.
“You sign the paper and after a couple of years that 500 a month turns to fifteen hundred. Then over two thousand. You get behind. So they foreclose and kick you out, sell the house again. You got the debt and they start over with another sucker. Then they sell it again. Not for us, Mira.” She knew what he meant. Her job paid minimum and his not much more. His skin was darker than hers and his eyes coal black. For a minute, they had that look, sadness and defiance, a look she had seen all her life.
“I know that,” she said. But she thought, a couple of years. That ‘s all she needed. All Sammy needed. She patted Tim on the arm. “Thanks bro,” she said. “I’m listening to you. I’m taking it all in.”
She opened the back door that led to the street and bus stop. She took a seat on the left so she could check out Casson Estates, three blocks on. She pressed her face to the glass, holding her breath until it came in sight. Beyond the fancy sign and the stone columns, a newly paved street, as welcoming as open arms, curved up the hill and out of sight. Date palms, newly planted, waved ferny hats to the sky. Roofers, high against the blue, moved across plywood slopes setting out red tiles. House after house stood single file, almost finished, waiting for occupants. A house in this place, near a good high school, would save her son.
Close to the entrance, a late model car stood beside a pink stucco bungalow. An elderly man came out the door carrying a piece of paper. Was that man the first buyer?  The first neighbour? All this she saw in the single minute the bus waited at the new traffic lights. Watching the old man, the first inhabitant of a new world, sent her heart flying out to him in a rush of gratitude. Sometimes, Casson Estates had seemed unreal, a mirage that would disappear. But now, Christopher Columbus was on the doorstep, and the estate and all its houses solidified around him into possibility.
She and James paid 600 a month for the small hot apartment in the most dangerous neighbourhood in Tucson. They’d enter paradise for 500. How could they lose?
****
In  August 2008, and for the first time in more than three years, James walked across the dawn parking lot of the Tucson Home Depot to say good-bye to Clay and Dano. He hoped they were still there. At a distance, he could see lots of changes. Many more workers were gathering than in the past. At least six black guys mingled with about ten whites. Off to one side, the once small group of Mexicans had expanded to twenty or more all strung out along the edge of the pavement. The only familiar face belonged to Clay Reese, the plumber, who stepped across to greet him, nodding in welcome, eyes crinkling.
“My name’s John now,” said James. “John Lawden.”
“I know that,” said Clay. “Grapevine.”
“Where’s Dano?” said James looking around.
“Rehab.”
“Crack?”
“No, oxy mostly.”
They stood for a minute in silence. He had wanted to say good-bye to Dano. Three years ago, Dano had found the guy who created fake ID for the Mexican illegals. James bought a driver’s license and a birth certificate in the name of John Lawden, five hundred for both. The next day, he signed the mortgage for 21 Turquoise Way as John Lawden.
 “I heard you went NINJA?” Clay asked.
“Say what?” said James.
“NINJA – no income, no job, no assets. So get a mortgage. Ha!”
James laughed. “So that’s what they call it. Well, I had a job, a great job for a couple of years.” He couldn’t tell Clay too much. After he and Mira had bought the new house, he put in two terrific years working as an electrician for Mountain Crest Homes, first making sixteen an hour with plenty of overtime, then twelve without overtime, but this year, minimum and, in the last months, glad they could still pay a few bucks at the end of his shift. He was not surprised when he arrived at work last week to find the place chained up.
“So what happened?”
“Company went belly up. Like the big fry up on the hills.”
“Big fry,” laughed Clay. “Yeah. Big fry shrank to small fry and us minnows down here, we’es fried brother, completely and ab-so-lutely fried.”
“Yeah,” said James, looking around at the gang of hopefuls, some setting up lawn chairs as if they knew they would spend the day. Business was slow. A single car drove by. James noted the cardboard signs held up for the driver’s inspection: several electricians, carpenters, plumbers, mechanics, all the trades.
 “I’m heading out,” he said to Clay. “If anyone asks, I’m John Lawden.”
“Sure thing,” said Clay. “Step easy, John.”
“You too, old-timer,” said James as he walked away.


At 21 Turquoise Way, Mira contemplated the flowerpots on the patio.
“Too big, Ma.” Sammy was at her side. “No way to get them in the car.”
“I know,” Mira said. “I know.” She put her arm around her son who seemed twice as tall as she and twice as wide. At eighteen years old, Sam had morphed from a sullen wanabe gang member to a football player and graduate of Foothills High.
With her arm tight around her boy, Mira stared out at the Catalina Mountains where the sun was making its entrance. How had they acquired so much stuff in three years? They’d have to leave a lot behind. She’d miss the patio the most. She’d miss coming home from her night cleaning shift and drinking coffee with James before he set out for his electrician job. She’d miss the golden desert light marching down toward them. She’d miss the curve-billed thrasher singing in the mesquite. Mira looked down at the houses below just catching the morning. Most of them empty now. A single window was lit up far along the curve. Could be an early riser. Or maybe not. Could be vandals, the new denizens, along with the raccoons.
Casson Estates was half ghost town. One night, six months ago, she and James had heard strange noises across the road. They’d watched from the upstairs window as young men carried out rolls of wiring, light fixtures, kitchen cupboards and window frames. To her surprise, James was laughing. “Even the thieves have overloaded themselves with inventory,” he said. Turned out he was right, After a few months, the unsalable loot, stacks of bathroom sinks and laundry tubs, granite counter tops, plumbing fixtures and gas fireplaces, lay abandoned in desert washes and arroyos.
When the mortgage payments topped a thousand, Mira stopped paying. It took six months before the bank got around to following up its threatening letters. The banks could barely keep up with the deluge. Short staffed and sinking, they cried to the government for help. James watched the suits on CNN and laughed. He laughed again when he heard Obama say the big banks were too big to fail but later he could only shake his head at the huge government payouts they received.
After a last glance, Mira closed the patio doors. What she had not counted on was that everyone else, their friends and neighbours, would all be going down at the same time, some completely blind-sided by the crash. Old Mr. Gomez, the first person to move into a Casson house, hanged himself from the chandelier in his dining room. Mira cried at the funeral, remembering her first sight of the ancient pioneer standing on his doorstep, his ownership papers in his hand.
But today, she, James and Sam were about to bail. Their best furniture was in storage. The house was heading into foreclosure but the banks would be unable to sell it. They would try to stick John Lawden with the debt; but, as she had planned long ago, John Lawden’s existence was dimming away along with the hundred and twenty thousand the bank claimed he still owed even after three years of payments.
The family name, Lorcas, had spent three years buried deep, but now, at last, resurrection day. The Lawden family would drive over the mountains in an old Toyota Camray. On the other side, they would become the Lorcas family once again.
James arrived back at the house in time to help Sam carry out the last garbage bags containing the living room drapes, the towels and sheets and some odds and ends. He helped his son squeeze the bags into the trunk of the car. Father and son stood silent watching Mira come out of the house, carrying her purse and a cloth bag stuffed with food and bottles of sweet tea.
“Give me a minute,” James said to her. He had to have a final look inside. Without curtains or drapes, the rooms brimmed with early morning light. In their bedroom, the old dresser with the missing drawer stood against one wall, a pair of his beat-up sneakers on the top. All the rooms were like that, half alive. He’d planned to throw the keys into the middle of the living room floor. He took them out of his jeans pocket and held them up into the sunny air. Suddenly it seemed a useless gesture. It wouldn’t make him feel any better. It was just something to do, to talk about later, but really, it meant nothing he could understand. Instead he set the ring of keys carefully on the shelf in the hall closet, stepped outside and closed the door.
“The sooner, the better,” James said to Mira as he climbed into the driver’s seat and pulled out of the drive. “So, we morphing huh?” he said, trying to make a joke. Morphing was her word. “Don’t get too settled in,” she’d remind Sam every once in a while. “One fine day, we’re morphing out of here. Out and away.”
When James rounded the corner at the traffic lights, only Sam looked back.
“Santa Fe, here we come,” said Mira, leaning back and closing her eyes. “A good college for Sam. Let’s pray for a cheap apartment. That’s all I got to worry about now.”
James knew she’d look for work as a cleaner. With luck, he’d find an electrician job. But he couldn’t grasp the hope. The bad times had a sticky feel, as if they were settling down to stay.
Still, he thought, as he aimed for the freeway, there was always the parking lot at Home Depot. That much he knew for sure.





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