By Emily Weedon,
It was that time of day in winter when the sky turned pulsing royal blue in the oblongs of her kitchen windows. The tungsten bulbs in the overhead lamp over the melamine table were garish against the twilight. Steam from the pot on the stove was beginning to form thick condensation on the window, dimming the light further.
Her kids were at the table, “doing” homework. She was puttering around the kitchen “making” “dinner”. A whole pack of frozen perogies just wanted boiling. She shuffled in circles, picking up a dirty dish and ferrying it across the kitchen. There she found a sponge that smelled past usefulness and threw it away. The kitchen garbage was ripped and needed taking out. She went hunting for a fresh bag.
And so on.
“Hey! Guys…Guys! No!”
Instead of working on their science fair experiment ideas, the kids were sitting there doodling with a ballpoint pen on a $20 dollar bill she’d left out on the table. The twelve-year-old was the instigator, drawing churlish designs. They defacing the queen who looked out warily from the green bill.
“She looks derpy now!” her eight-year-old girl cried, self-congratulatory.
“She looks like defaced money.” Mae told her, with forced monotone. “Don’t do that to money. Have some respect. It’s actually illegal. Do your work. Here. Define: what is a hypothesis.” She stabbed the table with the point of her finger to underline each word. Her finger tingled sharply. Maybe she had stabbed a little too emphatically.
The door listed hard against the frame. The door was straight but the woodframe farmhouse listed so the edge always caught the jamb. Her husband entered. Knocked boots against the peeling high gloss paint from yesteryear which clung to the doorframe, despite countless knockings.
“Pot’s boiling, Mae.” He switched it off.
“I’m aware.” Clipped.
“You’re always leaving the burner. You’ll wreck the pot.”
“Feel free to jump in and make dinner.”
“Love to. Can’t. I’m on my way back out.”
Even through the thick crocheted slippers her mom had made, Mae could feel the chill that swirled in with his entrance and pooled over the bumpy linoleum. Her heel landed in a salty little puddle of melted snow, which wicked up into her sock with surprising speed.
“Out. Out?” She stood there, with a wooden spoon in her hand. And an empty Red and White shopping bag in her other. “It’s Thursday for Crissake. Out where?”
“I decided to go with some buddies to Silver Lake. They got a hut. With a heater. Ice Fishing.”
“Great. And then you’ll drive back after six beer.”
“I’ll crash there. So I can have six. Or more.”
“Were you going to tell me before?” he shrugged a little. “It means I have to take the kids in to school.”
“Aw, shit. Mae. I haven’t taken a day off since Last Spring.” That was true. She thinned her lips against each other. And turned the burner back on under the perogies.
“I’m taking this money here.” He helped himself to her grocery money. “Truck’s outta gas.” He left a sloppy wet kiss on her cheek. She could still feel the cold of outside on the inside of his lip and the bone of his cheek.
She was up not long after dawn and felt her way out from under the gabled slant of the ceiling on her side of the bed. She had lived here for fifteen years and could get up in pitch dark for water and know exactly where to incline her head so it didn’t grind against that sloping ceiling. His side was empty, which felt surprisingly bland. She thought she’d feel more resentment. She woke the kids, sweetly at first, and then with increasing annoyance the second and third time. They ate half their breakfasts, porridge gone cold.
“Guys, watch the linoleum!” she called for the ten thousandth time when the kids shoved their chairs back carelessly. She did not care for the linoleum. Olive green and brown and buckled and cracked and a hideous pattern and no one was going to take the time to replace it if they gouged grooves out with the feet of their chairs.
They tore into their brown bag lunches, complained about what was in them and bickered all the way out to the Chevrolet. Mae drove into town, , a 45 minute drive fishtailing through the recent snow. Rather than plow, the township sprinkled sand on top of the hard pack snow. A fluff of snow rested over this, making the drive greasy. Now she was glad he’d opted to stay overnight. Fluffy new snow on icy old, packed snow was something no one should have to face, drunk or sober.
She was early for school. There was just enough time to sit in the front seat and play I Spy, and cuddle against the cold, and try to make up for the tatters of bitchiness earlier in the day.
Even for school drop was still 15 minutes late for work. Her manager shot her a look, but at least Mae knew good cashiers were sparse enough to buy her several late calls a week. She shuffled in across the smooth waves of the undulating wood floor in her Uggs and threw on a cashier smock.
The stock boy and the other cashier came in, stamping, and. Why did teenage boys manage to make everything seem like foul and sexual gross new discoveries? And when a new foul sexual discovery was made, why then sneer at it.
“What’s with you two.” She asked, without a question mark. More sniggering. They were high. At 9:20 am.
A moment later, the bell over the door announced a customer, and revealed the target of the sneering.
Lisa Hertz. In her thirties, though she could have passed for late twenties. No kids. No husband. Drove a 15-year-old Toyota. Tight acid wash jeans and forever in heels no matter what the snow was like. Today, they were charcoal ankle booties stained with salt. She was often made up, but not today. Just a fast ponytail under a cheap touque.
“Hey!” she said with a perfectly acceptable midpoint of flat and bright. From somewhere within the four short aisles, more sniggering.
“Cut it out you two.” Mae didn’t really care for Lisa one way or the other, but the spotty youths made her feel ill. So? Lisa was a prostitute. It was an open secret. And Lisa didn’t bother to hide it with a cover job. She just had guys round to her place with the purple curtains in the upstairs window out on Highway 620 near the big bend. When you drove by, if there was smoke coming from the chimney, you’d sometimes see Lisa’s silver Toyota. Did she ask customers to park round the back? Mae wondered about what kind of life it was. But she honestly didn’t care one way or the other. It bothered her more that being the sole prostitute in the area made Lisa the butt of these two asshole’s contempt.
Her thoughts were interrupted when Karl came in, backwards, hauling his boxes of artisanal cheese. Always neat as a pin, and a weird habit of wearing shorts, even in winter. The skin on his lean legs always looked tanned. He always smiled. Always busy. She’d known him, from around town, since they were in elementary school. She’d had a big crush on him in Grade 6, but three actual boyfriends and eight years later she had gotten pregnant with her husband. Karl never settled down, which no one in the town understood, but eventually just came to be one of those things that was. Maybe he was one of those closet types. But she still stood up straighter and smoothed out her smock when he came in. He always asked how she was and meant it, just like today.
After working the aisles Lisa appeared with a basket. Her choice was Mae’s lane or that asshole Terry. Easy choice.
She had six hungry man dinners. Two apples. Instant coffee, the expensive kind, cream, salad mix, and at the last minute, a Mr. Big bar. She dropped her purse and a book on the short belt to root around for money. She was reading a dog-eared copy of Wuthering Heights.
While Lisa rummaged, Mae thought about pretty woman. The boots. The bath. What a joke that make believe bullshit was. A fake leather purse with the bottom peeling off and Hungry Man frozen dinners was more like it.
Mae was quick with the scanner, so most of their transaction was the prostitute looking for money within the detritus of her bag.
“You like that book?”
“Re-reading. Love it. I studied it in University.” That was a surprising tidbit. University. Mae had done community college hoping to go on, before their first arrived and changed everything. Her plan to get out of town had died with that one blue line in a year. “Not that my BA got me anywhere.” Mae recognized all the rue in that statement. “Oh here, finally.” She had located an envelope and counted out some money. She handed over two twenties and got almost five in coin change. “Ok, thanks a ton. Bye.”
As she went down the cash aisle, she had to stop to avoid running into Karl, who stopped and touched the brim of his hat at her.
“After you.” She smiled a little and went. Mae clocked it and shot Terry a “See?” look. Not that the clod would understand manners.
“Drive safe.” Mae said.
“Will do.” she called back.
The moment the doorbell chimed it had closed, Terry, with:
“Did you see that!? She bought a Mr. Big!!” From the aisles, the other asshole rejoined.
“No fuckin way! Skank!” Gales of sniggering laughter.
“Hey Terry!” She paused with her till open. “You’re a fucking virgin loser so please shut up.” She held one twenty crushed in either hand. As she was about to put them in the till she saw that one had been heavily defaced with a ballpoint pen and a derpy face all over the queen.
Later, in the kitchen, while her kids watched tv in the dark living room, and she turned that $20 over and over in her hand. She’d swapped it for one in her pocket while balancing out her till at the end of the shift.
A knock at the doorframe announced her husband. He gave her a fish wrapped in newspaper. A farmed trout with the heat cut off and a stiff smell.
“Smells pretty funky.”
“Yeah, it’s fish.”
She looked at the $20 again. She had a mind to get in her car and drive straight over to Highway 620, gunning it. Pull into that driveway and hammer on the door. Hand that bill over and say, “I think you need this more than me.” or something mean and snappy.
“How was ice fishing?” she asked, with a brightness that put him at immediate unease.
“I’ll bet. Real relaxing. Bit of a waste of money. But it’s about the fun, not the fish, right?”
“You got that right.” he wandered away to join the kids on the couch.
* * *
According to the Red Cross, some 200 people, give or take, die each year in cold water immersion incidents in Canada. Most of these are recreationally related, and of these, many are fishing related and, tragically, involve not wearing Personal Floatation Devices. The Red Cross does not speculate on how many of these deaths are ones in which the only things that float in the vicinity of drowning victims are beer cosies. Nor does the Red Cross get into particulars of entire trucks with men inside, drinking while driving, and then plowing through thin ice, tight around thaw time. On the subject of men who say to their wives that they are fishing, but in reality are driving home from prostitutes late at night, and miss a turn near the big corner on Highway 620, winding up over the guardrail and submerging into one particularly deep swamp there, the Red Cross is mute.
* * *
A light snowfall showed painfully obvious tire tracks belonging to Mae’s husband’s truck. OPP dutifully followed the tracks and reports were made. The torn guard rail lines, and the gaping hole in the ice told a graphic story. The EMTs were fishers of dead men. They stuck a line in the dark, slushy water and hauled him out. There was no evidence of rods, tackle, bait or fish.
About six weeks after he went through the ice, Lisa was back in the Red and White. The bell dinged. She stood in the doorway, framed by it, hesitating. Mae looked up, looked away. Our of her peripheral, she saw Lisa scoot inside, grab a basket. She could hear her progress through the vegetable aisle, where her heels tapped the tiles. Then hear her squeak down the groaning undulating floors of the spice and baking and condiments aisle. She watched her disappear up baked goods and snacks. Her final approach squeaked down the dairy and meat cases where the floorboards were loudest on account of years of spills and temperature shifts.
Mae was busy totting up a customer, just punching the little squares that beeped and squeaked under her fingertips. But she was watching through her lashes. Lisa moved quickly to Terry’s lane and stood there, third in line. She shifted from foot to foot. She waited until she was next in line for Terry. No one was at Mae’s lane by then. Suddenly, she veered to Mae’s line. She put her entire basket on the belt. It was a weird shop. Five bottles of ground cinnamon? Several multipacks of toothpaste. Wooden spoons. Mae reached into the basket to start scanning, but Lisa stopped her, grabbing her hand hard.
“I don’t need that crap. This is for you and the kids.” she said. And with a left-hand grip that could not be fought, she rotated Mae’s hand and shoved a wad of bills into her hand and whipped down the lane and out the door. Mae stood there, shocked. Terry, who hadn’t seen anything saw her gob-smacked expression.
“What’s her problem?” he asked. Mae closed her fist on the money, stuck it under her smock and said nothing.
The truth was, her husband had not been well liked in town. When he died, leaving nothing but a few debts, and a large mortgage on their wonky house and 4 acres, the response from the town was a tepid fundraising effort. Mae added a few days to her weekly shifts. She kept her focus on the squares of her till. The satisfying beep that squeaked out when the button was pushed all the way to the bottom of its spring was a comforting and consistent sound. Her fingers danced over the keys like a pianist. The faces of the buttons, with their tiny pieces of paper slid inside had a glassy finish that always felt ever so slightly wet to the touch. Pleasantly wet. Sometimes, between customers, in the lulls, she just left her fingers poised over those keys, feeling the slight push back against depression and the glassy almost wetness of them. They purred when she ran her finger across them without pushing. Their pleasant sureness kept her from losing her mind while she staggered through grief compounded with lassitude at her husband’s stupid, stupid… stupid death.
“You should go on Tinder! Get back at him.” sniggered Terry, ever the politic one. Terry had tried. Living in a town with a population under five hundred meant the closest single person of the right gender and orientation was at least a two-hour drive. Nope. For the first time in over fifteen years, in a small town, in her late thirties, with two kids, and zero experience outside of them and the Red and White, she had to deal with the spectre of being widowed, unfulfilled, curious, fearful and alone. And more than once, it occurred to her that Lisa, in many ways, had it made. Gross as made might be.
One night, she made Ramen for the kids, and visited the spigot of a box of Hochtaler for herself a few times. She was still within the year of mourning and that kind of thing was permissible. Along with not shampooing a lot. The kids ate, excited to have hot dogs sliced up with the ramen and a boiled egg and cucumbers on the side. She wasn’t a complete monster, after all. They went to bed. She put the kettle on for her own plain bowl of Ramen, couldn’t be bothered to peel one of the eggs. Poured one last Hochtaler and went to bed. Leaving the kettle to boil itself down.
It took almost 10 minutes for the kettle to boil itself out of water. Since the lid wasn’t flipped down, it made no whistle, but boiled vigorously until it pinged and hissed inside as the final droplets of water dancing on the piping hot bottom. The fire churned under the dry pot, metal heated further. Without the water to take the heat, the pot began to glow, bathing the kitchen in a ruddy light. The heat was high enough, sustained for long enough to cause combustion in the tea towel on the counter nearby. The whole kitchen caught on fire. Mae’s dead husband had been derelict in many ways to their lives, but he had been a careful battery changer when it came to smoke alarms. It wrenched her from her heavy sleep.
Mae pulled her kids out of their beds, put wet towels on their heads and crawled across the bumpy, buckling and now hot linoleum. She got one good, close last look at it as they crawled out on their hands and knees. Standing in the snow in their sock feet, watching the place go down, and glad to hear sirens in the distance, she was thankful at least that she would never have to undertake a reno on that goddamn kitchen.
They found a Motel on Highway 28. Mae had honestly always thought the place was abandoned, but then she’d never passed by at night, or else she might have seen lights in one or another of the row of tiny windows along the squat white face of the building. Six screen doors ranged along under a brief overhang. It was a weird design choice to use screen doors small enough to look like they had been repurposed from Winnebagos. Which they were. Beyond the screen doors looking tacky, Mae had never had reason to think of the place before. Now they all had a chance to see it up close.
The first thing noticeable in the room was a Wine coloured spread hiding the sins of a Queen size bed. The Microwave hulked over what used to be an upper kitchen cabinet and which partly blocked the window. The eating table/desk/bedside table was covered with a wine-coloured velvet blanket, presumably to class the place up.
“They gave us FREE waters!” gushed the eldest, like he’d found Eldorado.
“Free!? We are like celebrities now!” crowed the other who opened every drawer she could find looking for other “free” stuff. When they all dropped their plastic bags full of donated towels and new toothbrushes and discount running shoes, they all fell into the bed together. The springs gave way and all three of them rolled into a deep bowl in the centre of the bed where they slept, hard. On the account of it having a roof, no linoleum and not being burnt down, it was perfect.
A little insurance money, meant to cover mostly tools, and a small amount of money dredged up once again by the town fundraising efforts kept them going. Mae started getting Hungry Man frozen dinners which were surprisingly good, for all her past judgements about them.
“The corn really is sweet!” cried the youngest. She was right.
She was coming home one midafternoon with bags from the Red and White when she saw Lisa. She’d bought more frozen dinners, and Ketchup chips for the kids and a box of Hochtaler for herself since she was in the closest thing to a celebratory mood she got to these days.
“Cold enough for you?” said Lisa, from across her car. She had a newer model Toyota now. Possibly only four years old. Black. Sharp.
“Cold enough.” said Mae. She slammed her Chevrolet shut, and regretted it, wondering if the whole door might shiver into splinters of rust at last. Over Lisa’s shoulder, a man in a pulled down ballcap and a doeskin jacket under a vest called out goodbye and exchanged a wave with Lisa. Mae was pretty sure that was Jake Reagan, who had a plastic welding operation out near Apsley. And then she looked down, because she realized she’d just seen the end of a transaction. Lisa leaned over the roof of her car, after putting a bag inside.
“You ever want to get a real drink?” she asked. She was looking at the box of white.
“You mean better than this?” Mae asked feebly.
“Better than that is not hard.” Lisa laughed.
Lisa picked her up a week later and drove them both all the way down to Prince Edward County. The last time Mae had gone that far was to accompany a school trip to the Quinte mall for a science fair with her eldest. She craned her neck at the old stone buildings in Belleville.
After a few awkward words, they drove quietly down Highway 62. The radio was tuned to CBC with the sound off. It was amazing how quiet the newer Toyota was over the asphalt. Bare trees against a leached out sky were catching the last rays of spring sun with their fingertips.
“It’s weird not driving. I haven’t been in the passenger seat since…”
“Yeah. Feels odd, huh?”
“Yeah.” More silence.
“You can ask, you know.”
“YOU know. Whatever.”
“Oh that. Um, ok. But I can’t think of anything right now.”
In truth Mae had too many things rattling in her mind, and none of them seemed ok to ask, even with such a blunt permission slip. Her husband. Other men. What was it… how did she… when she did…. Instead of asking, she played with the buckle of her purse. She was wearing an Old Navy wrap dress she hoped didn’t look too stupid. All she’d worn for thousands of days was jeans and a hoodie.
They pulled into a place clad with barn board. A fountain sprinkled out front, which Lisa pointed out as pretty cool. They sat on chair that looked like hardened black doilies. Through the thin Old Navy dress, Mae could feel the negative spaces of the doily pattern digging into the fat of her ass, imprinting her with its pattern.
Lisa ate oysters which Mae made a face at and didn’t try. The rest of the menu was a minefield. Shrimp cocktail looked ok, but at twenty-one dollars, she turned it down. Garden salad had “white” anchovies. No one liked anchovies. The soup seemed ok, but for some reason it was cold zucchini. Tartare turned out to be raw, nope. Escargot were snails. The closest thing that seemed ok was pork terrine which turned out to be a little like those European sausages that you peeled and spread on sandwiches. Lisa ordered them a bottle of white which Mae saw described as “deceptive” in the menu. She could tell it was better than her Hochtaler, but could not fathom why anyone would describe wine as deceptive. Mae didn’t order an entrée.
“Have the steak with fries.” Urged Lisa. “I’ll pay.”
“I’m good with water.” Mae mumbled.
“She’ll have the steak and I’ll have the lamb saddle.” Lisa told the server. “When a guy takes a woman out and buys her a steak, there’s a hidden message. ‘I buy steak, you put out.’” Mae’s eyes widened. “But I’m not interested in getting in your pants, so eat up.”
Mae stayed quiet, but she was an eager listener, and Lisa was disposed to. Turned out she’d taken English at Trent University and had even lived abroad on exchange in Prague.
“Well, Czech Republic now.”
“Doesn’t matter. They call it Bohemia. It’s where we get that word from.”
“It’s beautiful. Full of fairy tale cafes and cobblestone streets that wind around. There’s this place called the Powder Tower that looks like a villain’s castle, and there’s a for-real castle…”
“How could you just go and live there?”
“I got work. Waitressing at first in a Beer garden. But I got more… profitable work, later. I kinda blew my year. Too much drinking and partying. A few years later I finished my stupid BA in Medieval Romance at Trent.”
“I like Romance. Love those books.”
“Don’t we all.” Lisa said, wistfully.
Mae had probably too many glasses of wine, at Lisa’s urging. But she had trained her tolerance well over the last year with the Hochtaler. Sometimes she made little sculptures out of the boxes so the rest of the recycling had a good base to sit on in the blue box. It wasn’t until on the way back, up near Madoc, that she blurted.
“For dinner? No sweat.”
“For when you do it.”
“Oh, with a guy. Yeah. Depends. Mostly it’s by time.” Lisa readjusted her hands on the wheel, after doing a hand over hand turn, expertly. Her tone turned professional too.
“Regionally, the pricing structure has to reflect a few things, like the socioeconomics of the customer base. Around here, some people don’t have a lot. Other people have a surprising amount. Big city girls who operate on their own might charge anywhere from three to four or up to ten…”
“Like a thousand. For a night.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Nope. But it’s a lot less than that out here. I’ve got a regular, and, really, he’s like 80% of my business. Ever heard of the 80-20 rule?”
“Doesn’t matter. Anyway, this one guy means I make enough to carry my mortgage, my car, my groceries.”
“Do you like him.”
“I do. He’s great. He’s been my regular for almost ten years.” she shook her head. “Sometimes we don’t even have sex. He just wants company.”
“That sounds like a boyfriend. Have you asked him?”
“It came up. But he doesn’t love me. And I know he wishes he did.”
“I know lots of people who stay married even though they don’t love each other.”
“Yeah. Weird, right?”
“Do you DO it at your home?”
“Christ no. Who wants that? Want to do Cashier work out of your living room?”
“No.” Mae’s response was mournful.
“I’m so sorry. Your old home. Jesus. I’m an asshole.”
“It’s ok. It’s just general sad. Isn’t he weird about the other– people?”
“He gets it. He knows I’m safe. I do a lot of my work in that Baronial Hotel. I laugh every time I go there. ‘Baronial’. I spent the night in an actual Baron’s palace once, and it did not have a vibrating bed. I top up with only about eight other guys a month, one offs. Small town. Can’t rock the boat too much. People have lives. Wives.”
“Yeah. And fake fishing expeditions.”
“I’m sorry Mae.”
“I’m not. I would have left him, but where the hell are you supposed to go? I had a husband and house I hated. And I couldn’t leave either of them. So they left me. Boom.”
“More to come.”
“What do you mean?”
“For you. In your life. Next chapter. Dream big. That shit got cleared out of the way so you could do something else.” Lisa smiled. Mae was glowing. Partly from deceptively good wine, partly from the idea that the end of everything was the beginning of something.
Lisa proposed, and Mae accepted an arrangement that meant they could move into Lisa’s place on 620. Lisa didn’t want much towards the mortgage and the utilities. Having someone there to help with shoveling the snow and getting groceries was a big help. Sometimes Lisa took the kids in to school, which meant Mae could get to her job on time. Mae was working towards selling the acres with the burnt down house so she could get a place closer to town.
Mae started to do a correspondence course on payroll. Her boss let her try it out at work. She got good. She liked the way the buttons of the calculator made a little cup for her fingertips and especially liked the cute chewing sound the thing made while it calculated. Her favourite part of the payroll was the weird checks- when you had to take number of days worked ahead of a Stat holiday and figure out all the calculations. Her manager was impressed, since that was the part he always screwed him up.
One day, Karl stopped by on his usual route by the Red and White. Only this time, he stayed and ate a sandwich with Mae in the parkette across the street. Under the shadow of the town Cenotaph, he told Mae how he’d been expanding his artisanal cheese route. He had buyers in Toronto now. Mae was eating a big hunk of his cheese at that moment, perched on a piece of bread. Baguette, Lisa would have called it. Mae was trying not to get the crumbs all over and she was sitting up as straight as she could. Charcuterie was getting real big and everyone wanted Cheese made by hand Karl told her. He was expanding. Oh, and he’d never stopped liking her since elementary school.
The hunk of cheese fell right off the baguette. And Mae was beet red picking it up. She was afraid he might think she didn’t like it. Or him. He got her another piece.
Lisa helped Mae pack the moving truck. After two years in Lisa’s place out by the big bend, starting from nothing, it was incredible how many things Mae had acquired. Mae settled with Karl just north of Oshawa in a big place that overlooked Highway 407 on one side and what looked like all of Southern Ontario from the window over the sink. The floorboards were solid, dark wood, with deep grooves between the boards. They were silent under foot. In fact, Mae often worried she or the kids would go flying when walking too fast in sock feet. They were that slick.
North-East, Lisa was still on 620, still chasing down the 20%. Still making the trek to the shitty Baronial Motel. What she never told Mae, was that Karl had been her 80%.
Emily Weedon is a novelist, screenwriter, and film producer. Her forthcoming dystopic novel “Autocrator” will be published by Cormorant Books in 2023. She has also written a collection of short stories about dating in the post-romance age of tech including the Yes You Can Contest award winning short story An Officer and a Fiction.