City of Writers: Short fiction from Janice MacDonald
By Janice MacDonald | July 1, 2015
Carol’s bedroom window has a window seat built underneath. Mommy thought at first that this could be Carol’s toy box but, last winter, frost crept in at the far corners and stuck Carol’s white fluffy toy dog’s fur to the floor. Mommy had to rip Whiteyferd off the bottom of the raw eaves flooring. Now only Carol’s skates and toboggan are in there, along with her hula hoop and baton and a little patch of white fur. There is a throw pillow and a blanket on top of the hinged lid, to make it look like a nice place to curl up, but it is hard wood under the blanket and Carol doesn’t sit there much, unless she is looking out the window.
In the late springtime and all through the summer (unless it rains), the windows stay open, which means the drapes have to stay open, too, because the windows swing in and latch shut, just like on the cupboards in the hall. The sun has already gone over top of the roof by the time Carol has to go to bed, and the trees at the edge of the lawn would keep the streetlights from shining in, but it is still light out and will be for a long time. There is a poem about that in her Child’s Garden of Verse, the tallest book she owns, with thick pages and funny pictures. “In summer, quite the other way, I have to go to bed by day.”
It isn’t daytime now, but Carol has to go to bed a lot earlier than most of the kids on the street. Linda Greevin at the other end of the block has to go to bed early, too, but that doesn’t count because her family are Mormons and Linda and her brother are not even allowed to go out trick-or-treating. All the other kids, who are not Mormons, whoop and yell and play for at least two more hours. The sounds of their games swirl up through the open windows, sounding more interesting at a distance than they were earlier in the afternoon or just after supper. Carol creeps out of bed, avoiding the centre of the room where a floorboard creaks down into the kitchen, and kneels on her window seat, looking out toward the street.
She can’t see anything, just the gravel of the driveway, and the red roof of their Volkswagen Beetle that Mommy parks beside the house in the summertime. There is a garage out the back, but it is full of spiderwebs and slivers, and the dirt floor makes it smell like when you pick up a rock looking for worms. Billy Matheson says that’s what it smells like when you’re dead in your grave, and Carol thinks he may be right, even though he is mean.
From here, it sounds like the Matheson girls are playing skip rope. They have a concrete driveway, and they are always chalking hopscotches or skipping Double Dutch. They jump and twist with a long loop of tied elastic, too, Chinese skipping. Carol tried to jump and clear the elastic last week, but tripped when the elastic caught on the laces of her shoe. She wishes she could wear Salamander shoes with buckles on the side like the Matheson girls, but Mommy wants her knees to grow straight and true, so she has to wear saddle shoes with laces.
She pulls her knee up to her chest to look at the scab. It is starting to pull in toward the middle, leaving taut pink skin around the sides. Carol pokes the edge with her fingernail, wincing slightly at the delicious pain that starts on her knee and echoes in the back of her stomach as the scab lifts from the new skin. She mustn’t get it bleeding. Mommy yelled at her for picking her scabs and getting blood on her dress just a week ago.
Carol isn’t sure whether Mommy would mind if she got blood on her nightie. It’s one of the things Grandma Taylor sent, hand-me-downs from her cousins. The boxes come every now and then, with two sets of clothes that are almost identical, just one bigger than the other. The cousins aren’t twins – they are two years apart – but their mommy is dead and Grandma Taylor dresses them alike, and then sends their hand-me-downs to the other grandchild she worries about, the one who got away.
Mommy gets all flat-smiled when the boxes come. Her mommy, Grandma Booth, was visiting one time and said not to look a gift horse in the mouth and Mommy nodded, but Carol knows not to make too much of a fuss over anything pretty in the boxes so it won’t hurt Mommy’s feelings. Mommy buys Carol nice clothes that will last from the Jack and Jill store downtown twice a year. After they go shopping there and at Johnstone Walker’s for Mommy, they eat at the Seven Seas Restaurant, where Carol can look at the wall-sized fish tanks while they wait for their food.
Carol likes the idea of wearing clothes her big cousins have worn, though, and pretends that they are her sisters, far away. She isn’t even sure which one is the older one, Marlene or Darlene, but she especially likes a set of dresses with tulips for pockets. The skirts on those dresses whirl out like upside-down tulips when she spins. She wore the pink one with the yellow flower pocket first because it was smaller, and then the brown one with the red flower pocket. Carol is an only child, which is just as well – otherwise, how would you cope, which is what Grandma Booth said. Mommy has to work to make ends meet, and Carol has to stay with Aunty Gladys, who isn’t her real aunt, just a neighbour lady, when Mommy drives off to teach other little girls and boys. Carol doesn’t like to hear about those girls and boys at all ever. Mommy always talks about the good children, and Carol thinks they probably are only showing Mommy their nice faces. If Mommy were to see how they really acted, she would want to send them to their rooms early to bed, too.
The scab has creased down the middle of her knee, and Carol can move one half up and down, like the cover of a book or the lid to the window seat where she is sitting. If she breaks it off, it might bleed just a little at the top of the scab, which is the bottom of the scab if she stands up.
The sounds of the skip rope are slowing down. Maybe Mrs. Matheson has called her children inside to get cleaned up for bed. Carol can hear a basketball thumping, thumping, thumping, and clanging in the hoop. The young men who live in the house at the end of the block, just before the road winds down into the Milk-reek-ravine, have a basketball hoop on their garage. Billy Matheson says they told him he could use it sometimes in the afternoon, but not in the mornings ever. It is probably not Billy playing now. The men all live together. Mommy says they are bachelor shift-workers, and “heaven knows what the inside of that house must look like, especially the kitchen.”
They have three cars there, but one doesn’t have a tire, and two of the men always walk by after Carol’s suppertime, swinging their lunch boxes, the kind with the curved lid holding a Thermos. They are going to work while everybody else goes to sleep. There must be strong coffee in their Thermoses.
The scab comes off in Carol’s fingertips, and she leans closer to the window to see all the different colours that it holds. It is thicker in places, and darker where it is thicker. She brings it to her mouth, and bites into the thick crusty edge, fascinated by the texture. She knows she is not supposed to eat a scab. She is not supposed to eat the salty, chewy boogers that come out of her nose, either.
Some things that come out of your body you wouldn’t want to taste, like poo or earwax. If Carol gets those on her hands, she just scrubs and scrubs to get them off, the smell making her gag. But she has a secret pleasure in chewing on her scabs that Mommy finds disgusting. Carol wonders if Mommy ever ate her scabs when she was little and then just grew out of it, or if Mommy was one of those girls like Linda Greevin, who never seemed to fall down ever. Carol stretches her legs out along the window seat in the evening light. It will be light for hours still, because it is almost summer. Mommy will be downstairs marking, and maybe she will go out and do some gardening.
Last night, she was out putting old tin cans around her tomato plants so that the slugs couldn’t get at them. She keeps the cans in the greenhouse next to the garage over the winter, and they were almost as covered in spiderwebs as if they had been in the garage. Carol climbed the mountain ash by the garden while Mommy sprayed the cans with the hose. Carol helped dry them off so they didn’t rust. Mommy used rags made out of an old undershirt of Carol’s and a tea towel that you could see the sun through in four very worn out places. Mommy said that Grandma Booth would still be using that tea towel, doubled over and sewed up, as a washcloth, and laughs as if she is getting away with something.
Carol has got away with something. There is no blood dot on her knee. There is no scab left, either. She has chewed the whole thing. She picks a little bit of it out of the hollow in one of her back teeth.
Two weeks ago, Daddy came for a visit. He was bigger than the kitchen chair, and louder than the whole house. Mommy laughed and tutted, and they drank from the tall glasses with the black and gold lines on them that Carol would love to have her orange juice in but Mommy says are for special occasions. Daddy sat his hat with the rattlesnake rattles on a chair all its own, and Carol tried it on. The hat came down over her eyes but, if she tilted it back on her head, she could see.
Ride ’em, cowboy, her daddy laughed, and her mommy laughed, too. Carol ran out into the yard, wearing the hat, and Daddy shouted hey-where-are-you-going-that’s-a-hundred-dollar-hat and Mommy said oh-for-god’s-sake-Bryce-go-out-and-let-her-show-the-other-kids-she-has-a-daddy, and Daddy followed her out. He pinched the crown of his hat and pulled it off her head like a cork out of a bottle and set it on his own head, and took her hand and they walked all the way around the block, saying hi to anyone who was on their porch. Daddy and Mommy talked in the kitchen like other mommies and daddies must, and Carol slept happy that night. In the morning, it was just Mommy again.
A dog barks one block over. Maybe it is Lucky, who lives with Aunty Gladys and Uncle Dave. Lucky is a very friendly dog who doesn’t bark, except at bill collectors. That is Uncle Dave’s joke. Carol is not sure what bill collectors are, but they have never come along while she is there. Maybe there is a bill collector there now.
The barking stops and Carol notices that the basketball thumping has stopped, too. Maybe people are going inside for the night now. She creeps back across the room, and climbs into her bed, which is hanging like a pocket on the globe, which is the planet Earth, which is where they live. She sometimes plays the game that she has been caught by a giant and tossed into his pocket, and she rides down at the bottom of the pocket in the dark, with the cloth keeping her breathing shallow. The danger will be if the giant puts his hand in his pocket. Perhaps he has forgotten she is in there, and she will die from lack of air. Or maybe he will drop other things into his pocket, crushing her. Or maybe he will take her out by the scruff of her neck, the way Uncle George picked up the kittens on the farm last summer, and poke at her like a bug in curiosity and amusement, and then drop her way, way down and crush her under his heel, like a cigarette ground out by a cowboy boot.
Carol is never sure why it feels delicious to be down in the pocket, with every option being a danger. She thinks she may be dressed like a princess when she is caught, though, or like a fairy. Sometimes, she is shoved head first into the pocket, with a toe still sticking out the top, but if it touches her pillow, her bed comes rushing back, so she tries to avoid that. She also tries to make sure she is out of the pocket before Mommy comes up the stairs and catches her up to something. Carol is not sure what Mommy is worried she might get up to, but knows not to be caught.
With her head back on the pillow, Carol can look around her room and still see all the toys clearly, the small table with two child-sized folding chairs, where she can draw or have a tea party with Miss Mary and Chatty Cathy and Beanie Boy. The wicker doll carriage that belonged to Mommy when she was even younger than Carol is now. The bookcase that holds the red fairy books that Grandma Taylor sends every Christmas with the dates written into the front covers. On the top shelf sits the little statue of the pony that dances and wriggles when you press the bottom of the base and Carol can see the boxes of puzzles on the bottom shelf. The sun hasn’t set yet, but it is getting dusky enough that she can’t actually see the pictures on the sides of the puzzle boxes. She knows what they are, though. One is a covered bridge painted red, with red and yellow trees on either side. One is a unicorn with a fairy and lollipop trees. And the other is a picture of Main Street in Disneyland, where Mommy says they are going to go someday soon.
Carol stretches her ears to listen for sounds, first the left one and then the right. Mommy hasn’t made any noise downstairs for a while. Carol wonders if she missed hearing the screen door while she was down in the giant’s pocket. Maybe Mommy is outside watering inside every tin can circle, to make the tomatoes grow big and full.
Carol pulls back the cover of the bed so that it is exactly a triangle, and slips out. Her feet walk straight along one board of her floor all the way to the doorway.
Outside Carol’s open doorway is a hallway that goes left to the steep stairs down to the kitchen. They curve at the bottom, leaving three more stairs to the left. Carol thinks she has once flown down the stairs, catching the overhang briefly with her hands, and then floated down on to the wider landing of the curve, but she isn’t sure that wasn’t a dream and doesn’t want to try it again. To the right of her doorway is a corner of the hallway, which turns right and runs all the way down the house to Mommy’s bedroom, past low cupboards that go down at an angle all the way to the eaves. Mommy’s bedroom has a door, and a window to the front road. The hi-fi is in Mommy’s bedroom, too. Sometimes, when Carol is sick, Mommy will put her in her bed, and put a record on for Carol to listen to, like Sparky and the Magic Piano or Sleeping Beauty.
Carol creeps straight ahead from her doorway across the short hallway to the window that looks out onto the backyard. It doesn’t open, except for three small holes at the very bottom of the wood under the glass. In the dusk, she can see Mommy in her garden, standing with her hose. The hose is crimped in her right hand, so no water is getting through, and a foot or two of hose hangs limp. Mommy’s back is to Carol, so Carol cannot see her face, but she wouldn’t be able to in the shadows, any more than she could see the covered bridge picture on the puzzle box.
Carol looks beyond Mommy to what she might be looking at, but all she can see are glimpses of shine from the tin cans in the garden, and the outline of the mountain ash, and the darkening sky above the house on the other side of the back lane. Mommy is standing looking out at nothing, with water dribbling at her feet from the forgotten hose. Seeing Mommy standing there gives Carol the same pain in the back of her stomach as earlier, but she is not sure why.
Carol heads quietly to bed, vowing to be a better little girl.