Suzanne Thibodeau lay on the edge of death, or so they all thought. Her parents and her brother Albert were grey-faced and silent, going about their chores on the farm and minding the household by rote. Listless, but more optimistic than the others now that she was home from the hospital, Albert did his homework in his big sister’s room. He spread scribblers out on the flat quilted blanket like an added layer of armour against whatever sinister foe had pulled her down.
He won’t give up. He’ll just keep it up ‘til I die. Poor Albert.
Suzanne lay unmoving. She spelled words from her reader in her head or recited the names of Provincial capitals and the populations and main exports of major Canadian port cities. She listed the ingredients in her mother’s best recipes. “Tart Pastry,” she spoke the words unannounced, in a firm voice. Albert stopped colouring. “Two cups flour. One teaspoon salt. One teaspoon baking powder – the red carton, not the yellow. One cup margarine. Half-cup icing sugar. Beat one egg and tablespoon of milk and add to mixture. Mix like pie dough.”
Whenever Albert came into the room she stirred, her eyes opening and a thin smile on her lips. Her gums were too red and her skin too white. Albert read her jokes from his Archie and Jughead Digest. Sometimes he brushed her hair, hiding his hands to pull clumps from the brush.
As the March sun gained strength, Albert spent time playing with the young goats in the barnyard. Suzanne watched him enviously through the window. She laughed when he did, imagining herself running and jumping in the puddles. He has enough energy for both of us, she thought – if only he could share.
The goat he called “Belle” was especially fond of him and bleated whenever he came into the barn. One warm day, Albert tied a bell to a dog collar he placed on her neck. He made a leash from some binder twine and led Belle to Suzanne`s room.
“Suzanne,” Albert said in an excited whisper. “You have a visitor!”
Belle’s hooves made a clop-clop sound on the floorboards in the hall. Suzanne craned her neck, lifting her head to see who was there. Albert let go of the leash and ran around to the far side of the bed. Seeing him disappear through the door, the doeling rushed into the room. It scrambled forward and reared up to put its forelegs on the quilt. Then Belle simpered, straining to climb across to Albert.
Belle stopped short when she saw Suzanne, the little girl’s eyes bright and shining in amazement. The baby goat lowered her head and sniffed.
“She’s licking her, she’s licking her!” Albert shouted.
Suzanne withdrew her hands from beneath the covers and held the slender downy neck, feeling the life so strong in the spring kid.
* * *
He remembered thinking as he fell from the rafters, I’ll be okay. He always had been. Cars rolling in the ditch, the chainsaw slipping and cutting a strip across his blue jeans but the skin untouched, drunken nail gun battles. That was real stupid, but I wasn’t the only one doin’ it.
I guess a broken back is not ‘okay’, he thought as the light changed and vehicles coursed through the intersection sending up a mist of dirty spray as they sped by.
He wheeled down the city sidewalk towards the Law Courts. Suzanne was going to meet him today. She had a trial at 2:00, but said it was just a short thing – in and out. He stopped for a hot dog at Chez Eddie. I better watch my weight, he thought, a bit guilty as he rolled up the ramp to get his daily ration. Besides, the guy here’s a jerk. Setting up his little food truck in the summer, spends the winter drinking cheap draft down at the Legion, or in the titty bars on Maginot. Bragging about being a vet when all he did was hang around in the motor pool in Winnipeg. If I wasn’t in this chair, I woulda settled his bullshit down a long time ago.
“Gonna need a heavier ramp, you keep it up,” said Bob, the owner of the food truck that parked daily on King Edward Street.
“I resent that remark,” Albert said. He held up one finger and blinked it twice, like a back-catcher.
“One dog, with hot peppers and onions,” said Bob, busying himself with a bag of buns.
“And hurry!” Albert Thibodeau said. “Gotta meet Sis today and hear about how great she’s doing.”
“Tell her I love her.”
“No chance. You are a smelly dog, selling smelly dogs to other smelly dogs. You are on the interdict list.” Fuckin’ loser. Bet he couldn’t even change a tire or fix a broken window, never mind put up a two-hundred-foot hog barn in the dead of winter. He always acts like he’s my equal. Jesus. He’s a hot dog salesman.
“I love you too, Thibodeau,” said Bob, smiling and handing him a foil-wrapped hot dog. “You know, people are gonna talk, you two both not married, and she’s such a looker an’ all. Maybe you should let me ask her out – just to keep appearances up, y’know?”
What? Suzanne? Albert sat with his head down. Then he looked up, his face dark. “First of all, I don’t ‘let’ anything for Suzanne. She decides things for herself. And second,” he reached back with the loaded hot dog and fired it past Bob’s head. It exploded against the back wall and showered the counter in peppers, onions, and mustard.
“Speaking of appearances, Bobby boy, you better clean your place up,” Albert said, looking up at him, defiant. Shoulda done that a long time ago. Check out that face! Serves him right, the prick.
Albert tooled down the ramp, skidded into a turn at the bottom in the springtime slush and then pumped the wheels hard to get up a low rise on the courthouse lawn.
“Get lost, you crazy bastard! Lousy half-breed,” Bob yelled over his shoulder. He held a wad of paper towel as a dam under a knot of fried onions that was slithering down the wall.
Loser. Pathetic fat ass – bet he whacks off to the Sears catalogue. “I know I do,” Albert said to a passing stranger, nodding as he did so. The man glanced down at Albert, then straightened his gaze and carried on down the wet sidewalk.
Albert Thibodeau sat looking out at the harbour in the distance. He could hear Bob nattering to a woman who leaned on her walker outside the food truck. Glowering at them from above, Albert had the strange sensation of standing. He looked down and there were his legs in the chair. Nope, he thought.
Suzanne walked up the hill towards Albert. She took long strides up the incline and her face was glowing; cheeks flushed. Her long hair, not quite red, fell about the shoulders of her navy peacoat, as if it had been painted that way.
“Suzanne! I thought you had court?” Albert said, turning to face her.
“Postponed,” she said, opening a leather portfolio to hand him an envelope.
“What is this… oh, wait!”
“Open it,” she said, starting to smile. Lip gloss, white teeth, pink gums. “A little something from the insurance company.”
* * *
Suzanne lay in a chaise shaded by a thatched roof. Several fallen coconuts sat in the sand around her. She gazed out past the reef — “beyond the swash,” as they said here — to where the water was a darker blue.
An easel stood near the lounge chair and a watercolour was underway.
Nearby, beside the sandy street that paralleled the beach, a woman used a steel bar to prod the driftwood she was burning. The wood was in the cupped steel of a half drum cut lengthwise. Orange flames jumped and danced out of the rusted barrel and the woman held her head and shoulders back from the heat they threw. Her forehead shone with sweat. In the evening, she would put on a pretty print dress and sell grilled fish and chicken to the tourists strolling by on the macadam roadway.
“Carolina blue, cerulean blue, cobalt blue,” Suzanne said from under the brow of a sun hat, fingering some small tubes of pigment.
“Labatt’s Blue,” said Albert, hoisting a bottle of Belikin beer as he drew up next to her on the wooden ramp. “Next best thing, anyhow. How’s the Queen of Caye Caulker today?”
“Screwed and tattooed. How’s my favourite wheeled frog?”
“About the same. Ready for your meds?” The fixings for a joint lay in his lap.
“My meds? Looks like our meds, Mr. Eyes-like-two-pee-holes-in-the-snow. Startin’ early, ain’t we?” What else is new? she thought, straining to keep her face impassive. Don’t show him you’re worried – he’ll freak.
“I have a surfing lesson to give soon, so, you know – gotta attend to business now.”
“Har,” she said. There he is.
“Seriously. Meds now or wait ‘til later?” Albert said, persisting.
“How about now and later?”
“Now yer talkin’.” He rolled a joint, lit it and passed it to her. She took a greedy drag and squinted at her brother through one eye.
“Jeez, if Mom and Dad could see me now…” she said after exhaling. She struggled up in her chair and dabbed at the painting.
“You’re getting’ good,” Albert said, admiring the watercolour.
“The trick is to know when to stop,” she said, watching Albert place the joint in an ashtray epoxied to his armrest.
“Not my strong point, eh? I don’t think I’d make a good painter.”
She smiled at him, her body in repose, reclining. “You just gotta listen to the painting, buddy. It tells you when to stop if you pay attention.”
His face clouded. He looked hard at her where she lay, her sundress crumpled and the veins on her white arms showing pale blue through the skin.
“Nice try,” Albert said. “We’ve talked about this, Suzanne,” he continued, his voice raised just enough to make her look over to him.
“Now listen up. I will get you through this. Me an’ Belle got you through the first spell, back when you were little. That’s where I took care of you. You got me set up with the insurance settlement – that’s one for you. Now we gotta get each other through old age – and guess what? I’ve already begun. I started my golden fucking years without you.”
He paused long enough to take a big hit off the joint. His eyes stayed locked on her the whole time. Suzanne thought of Belle, the tiny doeling goat licking the salt from her neck as she lay in her childhood sick bed, the tongue rough like a kitten’s. After a moment, Suzanne spoke. “I made Mom and Dad let me have Belle there in my room for weeks. She peed on the floor and you cleaned it up so Mom and Mémère wouldn’t go nuts, remember?”
“Oh, yeah. You don’t soon forget the smell of goat piss.”
“I remember you cursing as you mopped up the pee. Remember little Belle watching?” Suzanne said.
“She had those crazy horizontal pupils.” He said, then paused and swung his head side to side, his hand touching his neck. “Christ, Suzanne. You weighed, like, forty pounds when you came back from the hospital…” He coughed. Tasting blood in his throat, he turned his head aside and spat. It landed thick and black and did not seep into the dry sand at all.
He sipped on the beer to take away the metal taste in his mouth and then slid the bottle into the cup holder. “So remember, Sis, I’ll tell you when to stop. Okay?”
“Okay, Thibodeau, okay,” she said, smiling with tired eyes at the wiry little belligerent in the beret who now sat wagging his wheelchair at her, the front tires lifted off the ground in a wheelie.
* * *
She stood in the front row of pews. Her hair, not quite grey, was pinned up neatly and a 1930’s style face veil hid her eyes. The pillbox hat and form-fitting black skirt and jacket made her feel like Myrna Loy.
Suzanne had read that the veils women wore in the Western Provinces were originally taken from the unofficial dress code of “ladies of the evening”. Single females who veiled their faces at night were available – for a price. An unspoken tribal signal. Hollywood starlets who wanted to shed their wholesomeness and vie for juicy roles as the hardened or the wanton wore veils.
I’m no femme fatale. Just wore it ‘cause it’s pretty. Plus, the veil would hide her smeared makeup once the crying started — maybe that was the best reason for it.
All the uncles and aunts, the cousins and their families had come out. The farmers from La Broquerie, the family from Moncton, from the Marleau side, and all of Albert’s work buddies and the old hockey guys too. They were all here. Those who survived until now, anyway.
They didn’t hold up that well, she thought, thinking of them clustered around a board of pictures in the funeral home lobby. Albert in minor hockey, at a dance in Friedensfeld, playing ball in Vita. Now his cronies were bald, grey, fat. The ruddy skin on their bulging noses looked like lunar landscapes. Drooping ears sprouted thatches of mossy hair. They had been a race of lean, wild daredevils, racing snowmobiles and chugging beer. Now they were confined to lawn chairs and slippers, sipping double-doubles.
“Die young – leave a clean corpse,” Albert had bellowed, sailing by on a motorcycle back on the farm, standing on the seat on one madman leg. How come he could do that and not fall, she thought and closed her eyes behind the veil.
But he was a Goddamn mess inside. A Goddamn mess. And he knew it too. The whole time. He gave his best to me, always. Everyone else got what was left over. It’s not fair, but it’s what he chose.
She watched them load the casket into the hearse. Since when are hearses blue? His casket was full length even though Albert was barely five feet when he passed. His atrophied legs curled up under him like the feet on Mom’s ironing board – tucked up out of the way, pinned back for easy storage. That guy at the funeral home suggested an adolescent size casket – what a bizarre thing. I shouldn’t judge – who knows the crap he must deal with? I wouldn’t want his job. But still… “I’ll take the full sized one, the Brittany model, in oak with satin stainless-steel fittings,” she had said, uncrossing her legs and popping open the clasp on her bag. Fuck you, and your ‘adolescent model’, she had thought to herself – almost saying it out loud. Then she snapped her credit card on the polished desktop and looked away.
Almost two, time for meds, she reminded herself as she stood by the grave. She straightened her spine and pushed her shoulders back. In her purse she found Mémère’s handkerchief. Unfolding it with care, as everyone watched, she took out the dirt she had collected. Dark and rich, from the foot of Father’s plot and the sandy loam from next to Mother’s headstone. She scattered the mixture over Albert.
He would have gone to the Marlies that winter if he hadn’t fallen out of those rafters. Likely would have been an NHL hockey player. Wonder what my life would have looked like then? Or his?
Then she reached in her coat pocket and took out the little bell, tied with a ribbon. It was just like the one Albert had fastened around the doeling’s neck when he brought it to Suzanne’s room. Its delicate ringing had come to mean something irreplaceable to her. A sound effect singularly associated with the place that only she knew – the blurry, terrifying skein in which she had lain, in the thin divide between life and death.
Suzanne thought of the doeling, sleeping in a box of straw in her room for weeks. She remembered the animal’s thin head, ears forward as Albert left, shushing the goat kid and then he, winking at her, his big sister, before closing the door.
Suzanne held the bell in her closed hand and prepared to cast it in. She stood unmoving until the people began to turn away, arms wrapped around loved ones they walked slowly to their cars. Then she bent her knees slightly and let the bell fall into the grave, listening carefully to hear the faint tinkle.
MITCHELL TOEWS’ website: mitchellaneous.com
Image: Manfred Richter via pixabay