Shauna Checkley works at the Public Library in Regina, Sk. She lives with her daughter and Their cats.
She is 58 years old.
THE MIDDLE GROUND
Panting, Jaye nearly collapsed on the top step of her apartment. She took a deep, ragged gulp of air. Like always after her daily run, her pink LULU Lemons stuck to her like a second skin. She felt a finger of perspiration tickle down her spine. Her legs were as limp as noodles. She almost floated inside, feeling high as a balloon.
From the hallway, she could hear her phone ringing. What the hell? Who’s that?
She rushed to her door and fumbled with the lock. Then the lock gave and she was inside.
Like she had stumbled into the epicenter of a sonic blast, instead of just her tiny apartment, Jaye recoiled at the cacophony that would soon reset her whole being. It was her landline.
Jaye saw it lit up past the scuffed wooden floors, on the window ledge in the kitchen. A row of potted plants stretched sentinel-like beside it, cactus, rubber, and aloe.
One of the stalwarts that still held onto tradition while others crinkled their noses at all that wasn’t mobile, Jaye believed in a home phone for safety if nothing else.
She hurried over to it and picked up.
“Hello,” she said. Her breath was still ragged. Perspiration dropped from her forehead and onto her cheek then zig zagged to her chin. One drop hit the taupe tiles below. She noticed a chip in its grouting.
“It’s me Becca, turn on your TV!”
“Why, what for?” Jaye knew that their Father’s show, “The Middle Ground”, wasn’t aired right then.
Mind you, it could be just about anything really…
“Trust me. Just turn on your TV to the news channel.”
“Pretty well anyone I guess.”
What kind of craziness is she onto now? Jaye thought. Billie Eilish? Kardashians? Other assholes that I don’t care about! She was all too aware of her older sister Rebecca’s absorption in celebrity gossip. Becca was like Etalk! and TMZ and sugar.com all rolled into one. Mind you, we are a bit of a celebrity family ourselves so what can you expect from her? Besides, this is an age of high narcissism, selfie stick and all.
Snatching up her remote from the trendy, black coffee table, Jaye flicked the big screen TV on.
What! Dad? In one larger than life poof, her father had manifested on the big screen, the CTV twenty-four-hour news channel. She saw his unmistakable graying profile, the short, squat man built like a gulag prison guard. It was him. No other. Underneath the running caption read, Sex scandal in Sports casting-Doug Petry.
Jaye felt that earlier sonic boom now fire through her whole being. Her nervous system thundered.
“What! Is that Dad?” Jaye gasped.
“Oh my God! What’s going on?”
There was a slight pause, and then Becca chuckled derisively and said, “I guess dear old Dad has been busy.”
“Yeah, he charged an escort service to the company credit card and got caught.”
“I wish that I were. It’s over every channel.”
“When? When did this happen?”
“The other night I guess.”
“Dad was with an escort!” Jaye gasped.
“ ’Fraid so.”
“Listen, maybe phone Mom. Poor mamma Peg needs a shoulder to cry on right now and we’re really all that she’s got. She’s too embarrassed to deal publicly with the whole thing. You know how she and grandma are…image conscious and everything. ”
“Yeah,” Jaye agreed.
Jaye had a sudden vision of their mother caught in that same sonic boom, though in her case it would likely be on a much grander scale, a juggernaut of epic proportions, something like a nuclear meltdown. What would Mom be thinking? Feeling? Broadsided by her husband’s infidelity, she would be caught in the epicenter of that blast.
Jaye inhaled deeply. Willow, her cat, appeared seemingly out of nowhere and began rubbing up against her legs vigorously. Though she normally loved that sonorous sensation, Jaye was presently too upset to revel in it. She pushed Willow away.
Becca continued, “Tommy’s freaking out as you can imagine. He’s threatening to punch Dad’s lights out. He and Mother are not taking it well.”
“So, what’s next?” Jaye gingerly asked, though part of her was afraid to even hear.
“We’ll just have to wait and see I guess.”
They paused. Then Jaye piped up hopefully, “Do you think he really did it? I just can’t picture it.”
Jaye heard her older sister exhale deeply on the other line.
“Credit card receipts don’t lie m’dear.”
“What if he just went for coffee with the escort, just wanted to talk. Some old guys do that y’know.”
Jaye groaned. “I just can’t believe it! Keep me posted ‘kay Becca.”
“I will. Or just turn on your TV. It will update you as good as anything unfortunately.”
“Okay bye then.”
Jaye set her cordless phone back on its stand. The light was dimming in the kitchen. It made the moment seem all the more surreal, as that late afternoon retreat was slowly settling in. Toronto was fading away. The row of potted plants suddenly seemed forlorn. The dated eighties cupboards seemed stiff, sad.
Staring into space, she was frozen in thought, frozen to the spot. What now? Of all the damning revelations! I suppose I should call the others. Yet she dreaded the thought of doing so.
But she dialed Tommy’s number anyways. Upon hearing it ring busy, she was relieved. Thank God, I don’t have to hear from him right now! Her older brother, the middle child, could be brash, outspoken, and Jaye really didn’t feel like dealing with his truculent nature right then. She wasn’t surprised that Becca had said that Tommy had been raving and threatening to punch out their dad. That was so like him. Besides, Tommy was such a momma’s boy it went without saying that he would rush to her defense.
Their Mother/Son bond was undeniable. With his ginger hair, that soft shade of red that their Welsh clan had been wanting for generations and his urchin looks, he was their mother’s trophy baby. She coddled him to this day. Taking time to squeeze any blackheads that cropped up on his nose or neck or shoulders, sending healthy foodstuffs his way when ill, she had a nurturing sense that continued into grad school and beyond.
Jaye then tried phoning her mother. Busy. Probably calling each other right now, she guessed. She pictured the two of them or possibly the three of them, Becca included, venting and raging in some conference type call. Once more, she felt relieved and set the phone back in its stand.
Think I’ll just sit this one out and get in touch with them later…
Wiping away the sweat that hung from her cheek, nearly stumbling over her irrepressible cat, Jaye then collapsed on a nearby recliner. She peeled her socks and runners off. She recoiled at the sour odor of sweaty feet. Hers.
Though almost frightened to look at the TV, she glanced its way again. But the news story had long since shifted to a pair of moose that were running loose down the main drag while being tracked by helicopters overhead.
Thank God, it’s gone…But, moments later, her father’s story appeared in the running caption below, Jaye felt her stomach sink once again. Iconic Sportscaster Doug Petry in sex scandal... So, she snatched up the remote and shut the TV off with one decisive click.
She stared at the opaque screen and saw her reflection, a faint outline, in return. Yet it seemed in keeping with her minimalist décor, the less is more way she arranged things in that tiny, stylish apartment.
It bothered her immensely that she lived in a world where the borders between public and private were dissolving as quickly as the glaciers. Why does Dad’s business, our business, have to be everybody’s fucking business? Says who?
Shame and scandal were never the family’s strong suit. For the Petry’s could gracefully rise and shine in the light but fell hard whilst in the dark.
Still, she didn’t know what to think. Did he really do the nasty? Or was he just one of those dud tricks who order club sodas and rail about not being able to open up to their wives? Becca doesn’t think so but who knows? Just maybe? Hopefully?
Feeling parched from the run and beginning to get the awful tension of a stress headache, she wandered to the kitchen. The tiles were cool and refreshing under her bare feet. She drank a tall glass of ice water and popped a 12-hour Advil. God knows, I’ll likely need it this next while, she thought, disconsolately.
Though she usually did cool down stretches post-run, then showered, it wasn’t so today. She was thrown completely off pattern, broadsided.
She went to bed and collapsed. So now what? There wasn’t just the reaction of immediate family there was also the issue of friends and co-workers and others too. What would Auntie Bronwyn say? She could just see Auntie’s fallen visage, features pinched sharp. She would likely take the matter personally, with her one degree of separation from her wronged sister, Peg.
And how would she face everyone at work? Would she end up like fat Cathy at work? The cruel office rumor has it that the urn on Cathy’s desk holds her cat’s ashes. What would be said about me now? Daughter of Pimp Daddy? Li’l Pump? Just what? Would he become the new “Dad” joke?
And most of all, why were they all still stuck in the “open office” arrangement when it had been voted out and everyone opted to return to their soulless cubicle? It would be so much better to just be able to hide out in her old box by the corner, right? So why had that decision still not been enacted?
Still, there were some advantages to working at Fairford Industries. Besides, of course, having access to an inexhaustible supply of knobs and switches,(You never know when a good widget will come in handy), there were even more subtle perks.
The fact was that everyone was relatively easy to read at work. The cat lady. Porn guy. Soccer mom. The social justice warriors. Family man. Church spider. They were an eclectic collection that operated above the grid, along recognizable lines. But with her family, it was a much different story.
They hid feelings, hoarded emotion. Like cats, they were ready to spring, sharpening their claws on grievance or whim. Sometimes they even seemed to play roles like victim or martyr or helper, relishing the chance to dramatically display their own inner voice.
Rolling over, Jaye clutched her pink, Hello Kitty! Pillow. Its white lace fringe had grown grubby over time, clung to over many a sweaty night of tearful introspection, including now. She sank soft into the cool, white sheets underneath her, high thread count glory.
She wondered about her lack of anger at her father. She had only been perturbed momentarily when she first saw the whole debacle being televised. Yet, it struck her as curious. Why am I not as livid as the rest of them? She could almost feel the other family members rage and disappointment vis a vis the ether, the cosmic give and take that settled upon one like unwanted radiation. After smarting momentarily, she had pretty much returned to normal. Her biggest issue was having to weather the storms of the others. Especially Tommy. That’s all.
Is there something wrong with me? Should I be as angry and ashamed as the rest of them? I wonder why I’m not. She disliked having to second guess herself.
One often victim to self-defeating thinking, that no one likes me/I hate everyone and everything/life sucks/ mindset, Jaye had to frequently tweak her thinking, adjust her attitude. Anti-depressants and reality checks were her strongest allies, yet she also held faith in the killer work outs, those extra-long jogs that gave her that endorphin rush to happiness.
Still, was she becoming a little too obsessive with that too? Others had been giving her frowns, worried looks when she shared about her workouts. Or the health cleanses she sometimes did. She made a mental note to deal with the jogging issue later as she presently had too much on her mind. If it’s not one thing, then it’s the other…
She sighed. Her work outs had to do with more than just mental health, though. Having always been surrounded by beauties, she was a little insecure about her appearance. She fretted over her weight, the squat, blue collar body that she had inherited from her dad. But she also knew that now was not the time to dwell on her looks. This was about Dad.
Wonder how he’s doing right now? Just what is he thinking, feeling? If he really did it, then does he have any remorse?
She grabbed her phone and texted him.
Love u daddy I heard about in on TV Hope all is ok
Instantly, she heard the ping of an incoming text.
XO XO XO So very sorry JJ. First time I ever did that, last time too!
Do u want to go for coffee & talk or anything?
Not now. But I’ll text u soon
Feeling a sudden pang, she closed her eyes. She felt them moisten, almost tear. But she didn’t cry.
She believed him. She knew he wouldn’t do it again. Even the very best dogs get grace over one bite after all. So why shouldn’t he? It was only fair.
Still, she felt that last flicker of faith in him promptly go out.
He really did it after all! He admitted to it even! So that was that, moving along, for the family and media circus that was about to unfold would move along on its own accord now. There was really nothing she could say or do.
Instead, she recalled the last time they had been together, father and daughter.
They were seated in the outdoor patio of London Dairy, a local hot spot that sported 101 exotic flavors of ice cream. Though they had little else in common, they both shared a ravenous sweet tooth. So they would sometimes slip there together. It was their guilty secret. It was their place.
“You didn’t get your usual,” Jaye observed.
“Nah, I thought I’d finally try something new,” her father said, licking the melting greenish-blue ice cream that was running wantonly down the waffle cone.
“Well I’m sticking to the tried and true, cheesecake ripple,” Jaye joked.
“That’s just like you J-J,” he said.
At that memory, she nearly choked.
Jaye had always been in awe of her successful, high profile father. The nationally syndicated TV segment, his ramrod posture and no-nonsense air, the tailored clothing that made him somewhat of a dandy amongst his colleagues, it all worked to create an almost severe image in her mind. Though he wasn’t the dreamboat dad like some of the other patriarchs, most notably her friend Karli, who had the tanned, hunky, surfer father, he commanded respect if nothing else. He was the adult you listened to, deferred to, not the pushover hippy teacher or the eccentric neighbor or even emotional mom. He was the real deal.
And though he worked long hours, was gone a lot on the road while she was growing up, Jaye still managed to establish connections with him. She did realize that it was more her seeking him out than the other way around usually. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Daughter. Yet, he was still available, present as the watches with the oversized faces that he always wore. (It seemed that everything about him was larger than life somehow).
Jaye secretly enjoyed having a celebrity for a father. It had always given her an edge especially with boys or adults. When quizzed about Doug, usually by prospective suitors, she would cock her head coyly and feign disinterest in the whole thing though she was preening within. Her trademark remark eventually just became, “Watch The Middle Ground and see for yourself.” Still, it did have a downside. Like now.
She had surmised through bits of “adult talk” gleaned through the years, picked up when she and Tommy hid behind large recliners or in deserted hallways and eavesdropped while her parents sipped cocktails and exchanged secrets and searching looks that there was one overriding irritant with him.
Her father was angry at his own family for disavowing him for becoming establishment, the face, and franchise of corporate culture. “What was I supposed to do? I was son number four. There was no place on the farm for me” But to his socialist farm family he was nothing more than a sellout. It was a sticking point with him that led to a near cutting of ties with his own clan, just grim nods and distant stares. That’s all.
As his side of the family became coolly ignored, Jaye and her siblings became enmeshed in her mother’s side near exclusively. Yet, her father derided them for being Welsh and rather odd. “What do you expect from people with names like Crydwyn and Bronwyn and LLewlyn and what have you?” They had an old world sensibility about them was endearing to some and annoying to others it seemed.
Still, on those occasions after one too many cocktails, he’d wax nostalgic about life on the old homestead. “Yup, you can tell I have three older brothers by all the BB scars on my ass!”. Then he would break into thunderous laughter while his martini dripped onto the hardwood floor. Peg, her mother, then would admonish him to wipe it up.
Jaye heaved the pink pillow across the room. She felt numb. Spent.
She realized that she was likely his lone supporter. Who else was in his corner? His own family is distant as ever and our family is furious. Even the corporate knives have shred him. Recalling the paper people she used to fold and cut out as a kid, those flimsy things she’d then decorate the living room with, so she saw Doug. Paper Lion. Paper Man.
Emerging from behind the tall potted plant in the corner, the cat appeared. It sniffed. Paused. Then Willow made one huge leap onto the bed, snuggled in beside her. Jaye felt instant comfort. The warmth, that purring black ball, it soothed her like nothing else. A rather sensitive, high strung young woman in her mid-twenties, she sought comfort in all the right places, running, and health products. She eschewed the usual weed and social media of her peers.
Her cell phone made her especially nervous. She knew she was addicted to it, that it had split her in two, stressed both by it notifying her or not notifying her. These days, she just used it sparingly if all. Gotta replace FOMO with JOMO somehow. (Fear Of Missing Out with Joy Of Missing Out)
She sniffed her essential oil bracelets deeply from her wrist. Running them slowly across her nostrils, she paused over each black, charcoal bead. Ah, frankincense! She loved that refreshing scent and she truly believed that it did give her the mental clarity that it was touted for. Gotta take care of myself…If I’m gonna survive this whole nightmare…If we all are…The biblical wisdom of frankincense. The gift of the Magi. Who would have guessed?
Then the loud ring of her cell phone shattered her peace. Azalia Banks. 2in1.
“Yeah, Jaye we need you to come home as soon as possible. We’re gonna have like a family meeting,’kay?” It was Tommy. He sounded breathy, hoarse.
“Like all of us uh…except Dad. We just need you and Becca to get here.”
“Okay. I’ll come right now,” she agreed.
Quickly topping up Willow’s dishes with extra cat food and water, as she wasn’t sure when she’d be back, Jaye mentally prepared to leave. Got my purse. Got my keys. Got my phone. Ready to go.
Jaye drove directly to the freeway. She was glad to see that there were none of the usual accidents that normally slowed Toronto traffic down. Rather, it was smooth sailing down the QEW until she pulled up to her parents’ home a half hour later. She yielded as ever at the last turn where the big yellow sign stood that said SLOW DEAF Child. Who was that kid anyhow? She never did know.
Spying Auntie’s navy blue Honda parked across the street, she slowed down to pull up. There was only one spot left in the driveway and she took it. Next to Tommy’s pimped out black Jeep.
Their three story colonial style house was titanic amidst a lawn and bushes trimmed as precise as a military haircut. But then it had always had a certain regal splendor hadn’t it? Now, though, it seemed to only sport a grim, ironic air. For the god had fallen from Olympus, that lesser hero spoiled, soiled, and down.
It was her happy childhood abode. She recalled the birthday parties and throw rugs, Tommy’s race car shaped bed and the princess canopy beds that her and Becca slept in, the ones with silky pink sheets.
The cozy social rituals of their Cascadia neighborhood, snowbirds, dinner parties, golf weekends, poodle play dates. It all went down in that gated community, amidst the man-made lake, the bubbling fountains.
Those were the days, she sighed.
Yet how would slick and sleepy Cascadia take it when one of theirs was being burned at the stake? Would they divide along the same lines as the rest of the country? Coffee row static as palpable as any media live wire, yes that on-line in overdrive, the eye of the nation blood red. Jaye sensed a storm brewing all about, electric, familial, and otherwise.
I don’t care if he’s tarnished his name. Our family name even. Who cares what other people think? Screw them! But the rest of the fam will be adamant that I know. They will likely be in damage control mode while dad will be back pedaling for his life.
Uh-oh they’re all here.
Jaye looked all about as she entered the front door. She had been to these kinds of conferences before and figured all would be alternating between tearful pep talks and bouts of guilt and reason, the usual family fare.
Everyone had gathered in the living room. Their Mom, her sister Bronwyn and their mother, Grandma Crydwyn, Tommy, Becca and her husband Stuart. A scent of freshly made coffee was in the air. The mood was dour.
“Oh, Jaye,” her mom sobbed. Chi-Chi, her Chihuahua, barked.
“Gimme a hug.”
Becca and Stu smiled weakly at her. Tommy glared, though she wasn’t quite sure why. Her aunt and grandma sat stiffly, with long, disapproving faces.
“Hello dearie,” Grandma Cryd cooed.
It was the sad gathering of the clan. As she went to pour herself a coffee, Jaye wondered if their ancestors generations earlier would have joined together to mourn a failed crop or a lost battle, testaments to Welsh heartbreak. Instead, here they were immersed in a tawdry sex scandal. That’s all. Socially conservative, fiscally liberal, and generally complacent, so they are. They were a cornerstone in the neighborhood.
Jaye returned to the living room and sat on the couch beside Grandma Cryd who smelled faintly of lavender and mint (as most old ladies seem to). As ever, Cryd wore her jacket with the three old buttons of pictures of them as kids on it. Jaye recalled that was her kindergarten photo. Cryd had been complaining as of late how hard it was to do simple things like dress or use the stairs. So she opted to keep her jacket on.
Jaye looked around. She saw that no one was on technology, though phones were within arm’s reach, drawn pistol like. That was a first, rather, everyone sat stony faced. Silent.
The living room, which looked like an ad for House Beautiful, was as immaculate as ever. Jaye knew that when stressed her mom opted to clean rather than eat. Yes, the proof was all about her, in the nooks and crannies sans dust. And Jaye even thought she still saw grooves in the carpet from a recent run over by the Hoover vacuum cleaner.
Tommy ripped open a bag of Cheezies with his teeth and began to munch.
“So, I guess we’ll bring you up to speed first thing,” Auntie Bronwyn said. She had her arm around Peg. The two sisters were close confidants of one another, always had been. They looked like a pair of anguished book ends.
Auntie had her wavy locks pulled up in a loose bun as ever, with a colorful head scarf. It had seemed to become her signature look over the years. Yet her green eyes had set hard.
“Wait, when did this all happen?” Jaye queried
“Two nights ago.” Becca and Bronwyn spoke in unison.
“Where’s Dad?” Jaye asked
“Who cares?” Tommy snapped
Jaye looked at him and frowned.
“Apparently he’s at The Knights Inn. Some flea bag motel I imagine. Y’know out in motel village by the airport.” Bronwyn said
“He calls every so often,” Peg added.
Jaye mentally pictured him in one of those low rent motel rooms with tacky bed spreads and hot plates tucked in the corner, crammed between thrifty travelers and local riff raff. She wondered if by slumming it, he was somehow punishing himself or even clamoring for redemption. Who knows?
“Let him stay there and cool his jets,” Becca added
Rubbing her temples, Peg said, “The last day has been a nightmare, with reporters phoning me, even coming to the door for God’s sake. And I guess they’ve been talking to his escort as well. Wonder what she’s got to say? For a moment there, I thought I was going to have to contact our lawyer.”
Grandma Cryd shook her head, frowned.
“Who tipped the press off?” Stu queried.
“They have their ways.” Becca said flatly.
Her mother and auntie nodded in agreement as if they knew. Then Bronwyn, the unofficial leader of the meeting, cleared her throat and continued.
“So to bring you up to speed like I said, your dad has been caught with this Jade Blu Afterglow person. And he’s been fired from The Middle Ground, in fact there’s talk of cancelling the show. But the network is holding a press conference where they are giving him the option to just resign. He wants us all to attend apparently.” Bronwyn spoke with a dry, angry air like she was the one who had been personally affronted.
“Bullshit,” Tommy scoffed.
He popped an extra-long Cheezie in his mouth and scowled. “Why should we do anything for him after what he just did to Mom?”
Tommy and their mom exchanged soft, sideways looks.
Chi-Chi yipped again.
“Shhh!” Becca chided the small dog.
Sniffing the Cheezies, Chi Chi trotted over to Tommy and began to beg. Tommy gently pushed the pet aside.
Jaye understood Tommy’s rancor at their father, as who needed a scandal after all? Their clan was prone to close ranks to prevent one. Jaye knew that much. And she also knew Tommy’s fury at their father for hurting and humiliating their mom. Since whatever affected momma bear certainly was felt by boy cub. But she surmised that the friction between them went much deeper than this very revelation.
The two had just never got along. Absalom, Absalom. Like that Biblical son, Tommy had the same disobedience. Though he tended to charm everyone around him, especially mother and grandmother, Tommy never quite had that effect on their dad. Jaye heard their dad often say, “That kid never listens. Cuts in line everywhere. Just drives me nuts. I think he must have ADD or something.”
Or on other more ominous occasions, Doug would say, “Y’know I brought him in this world and I can take him out too.”
Tommy who expected to shine, to lead, often was undermined by their dad, leading to all the ensuing power plays between them. Father and Son both seemed to be guided by the same axiom. A straight line is the shortest distance between two points.
Once, a twelve-year-old Tommy was so angry at their dad on a family ski trip that he threw his skis off the gondola in a fit of rage. This of course, led to their dad booting his ass all the way back to their pricey hotel room once they were back on terra ferma.
It never did help either that Tommy was best buddies with, Trey, the class stoner. Jaye recalled the time she was with her dad and they had to drive over to a seedy neighborhood to transport stuff that Tommy and Trey had bought at a heavy metal garage sale. Garish looking metal spiked boots and a battered fog machine. Yet it was seeing the pentagrams drawn in Sharpie on the wall and fashioned out of masking tape on the cement floor that made her dad’s lips go thin. Just what are you rotten little bastards up to?
Stu retrieved the coffee pot and politely made the rounds topping up everyone’s cooling coffee. He was dressed very country club, polo shirt, khaki pants.
“Such a dear,” Grandma Cryd said.
“Awesome dude thanks,” Tommy said.
Becca beamed at her new husband. Stu was mild mannered and gallant, in sharp contrast to the alpha males that Jaye had grown up with, Tommy and her Dad butting heads like rutting rams.
Continuing to crunch loudly on the Cheezies, Jaye glanced at her older brother. She saw one roll on his orange stained tongue as he chewed.
“So, what do you want, Peg? Tell us.” Bronwyn asked her sister, one arm still draped protectively around her.
If Tommy looked like a thunder cloud, their mother appeared like a sad, grey sky. The light had seemed to go out of her eyes which were vaguely red rimmed. Her countenance was flat. She clutched her beloved Chi-Chi like a child clinging to a teddy bear.
She was a classic beauty more so than the rest of them. Her blonde hair had now gone champagne gray. But she still looked and seemed remarkably youthful otherwise. Only the gravity of this moment, the heaviness of betrayal, was wearing on her.
Was mom raging and wrathful ? Or just saddened and embarrassed? Probably all of it, Jaye imagined. An ugly cocktail of emotion, it had likely knocked her for one helluva loop.
Lately, her mother’s life had been all about book clubs and focus groups. Gluten-free this and that. These were things that Jaye found somewhat uncharacteristic of her mom. Maybe she’s struggling too? But with what? Perhaps aging and the subsequent empty nest? Some personal problem? Who knows?
Maybe it’s the both of them even? Mom and Dad. Had they hit some wall, had their relationship run its cycle, turned off course?
Jaye wondered if her Mom blames herself. Wondered if she feels responsible for him seeking an escort? Women sometimes do. But Jaye didn’t sense any second guessing of herself on Peg’s part. She didn’t seem like her integrity had been compromised at all. She still had her full, blooming presence like the beauteous flowers she nursed in her garden out back, just wilted feelings as could be expected.
Peg shook her head. Shrugged.
Mom looks more tired than affronted, Jaye thought.
What is she thinking?
Jaye suspected that her mom was not likely to do anything drastic. She never did. Cautious and conservative by nature, Peg had an old school sensibility, home and hearth, loyalty and family just like grandma (so what happened to fidelity?).
Only Auntie was likely to take a roaring stand. For Brownwyn grew up singing I am Woman, while Peg likely hummed Stand by Your Man.
“I say we boycott the press conference,” Tommy said, “That’ll show him.”
A ripple went through the room.
Wonder what’s going to come of this?
Jaye hoped it wouldn’t lead to divorce, to a fractured family existence after all their history together. She was pleased that unlike so many others, her family had stayed together, weathered every storm imaginable. She feared a breakup. Please God no! Just for a moment, she felt her inner light flicker, falter, like a candle blown on and nearly extinguished.
The last few years, their mom had found herself with an empty nest. All three of her children had grown up, moved out. So, she began chumming with her divorcee friends more and the newly separated Auntie Bronwyn. Jaye observed her mom become mired in single woman chaos and drama. The tearful late-night phone calls. The never-ending glasses of wine. Cups of tea. Girl talk. Peg the sounding board for everyone else’s problems. Good old Peg…
But would she become one of them? Join that ever growing circle, chorus about her, those sirens beckoning, calling? Now she’ll likely need their support in turn!
Don’t let them egg you on into becoming like them…The gay divorcee and all…They just want you to be single and foot loose too. Misery likes company. That’s all, her Dad said to her mom. He was clad in his bathrobe, his hair still damp, slick from an earlier shower. He was sporting a frown.
Those sirens will just drown you. That’s it.
But, in retrospect, Jaye wondered if he had just been projecting his very own dark impulses onto mom? Just maybe hmm…
Clearing her throat, Becca said, “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m pissed at him. That’s for sure.”
“Me too!” Tommy roared. He gave Jaye another stony look but she just ignored it.
“He says he’s sorry. And he only did it the once,” Jaye piped up, hopefully.
Tommy looked like a thunder cloud. “Have you been talking to him?”
“Texting,” Jaye admitted.
“Hmmph. Not surprised,”
“But why would they fire him over one slip? It doesn’t make sense.” Jaye implored
“Arnie,” Peg said, flatly.
Another murmur passed through the room. Others nodded. Arnie. Yes.
Arnon Friedman was the network head honcho and someone Doug had clashed with on a semi-regular basis for years. So whenever Doug referenced dick head himself they all knew who he meant.
“Arnie was probably just waiting his chance,” Peg opined.
Crinkling his upturned nose, Tommy said, “Yeah, Arnie is a real douche and so is his son Scott. My buddy Trey beat Scott up once in high school, in the parking lot of Burger King where we all did our noon hour scrappin’.”
Tommy grinned, giggled.
“That’s not funny Tommy,” Peg said
“Look, it really is Peg’s call, I think,” Bronwyn opined.
Stu nodded thoughtfully. He rubbed his chin as was his awkward habit along with plunging his hands deep into his pockets. He always had a slightly stunned, deer-in-the-headlights look when he was with the Petry clan. They were so different from his own close knit family.
Sighing deeply, their mother then paused. Then she said as her neck strained, stretched, “Look, it’s not really about me. It’s about family and we need to rally together through this. I’m going to the press conference tomorrow and I hope the rest of you will attend as well. We can do this.”
She clapped her hands weakly. Half smiled. It was a familiar gesture Jaye had witnessed prior to hockey games, curling matches, hands moving as adroitly as her eager, fruity breath froze, held in the winter air.
Grandma Cryd nodded glumly. As her head bobbed, her neck fell into accordion like folds. The Welsh matriarch looked like a dried and cured mermaid, something that had swept in from the coast.
“I suppose so,” Auntie Bronwyn deferred.
Tommy scowled. “I ain’t going anywhere!”
“Dunno...Yet,” Becca chimed in.
“C’mon Becca,” Stu urged. He nudged his wife with his shoulder.
Tossing his bag of half eaten Cheezies aside, Tommy threw Jaye a poisonous look and said, “Whadda ‘bout you, Daddy’s girl? You’ve been pretty quiet this whole time.”
Jaye sipped her coffee. Shrugged.
“Huh daddy’s girl, tell us,” Tommy goaded.
Jaye threw Tommy a dark look.
He returned it. Then he smirked and said, “C’mon I wanna hear it.”
But her lips thinned, tightened.
Chi-Chi then broke into a wild fit of barking that upset both the peace and the injured nerves even further. He spun in circles on the hardwood floor that his toe nails clicked on.
“Shut up Chi Chi!” Becca shrieked. She was the least tolerant towards the tiny, yappy dog.
But it only excited the Chihuahua even further. He lapsed into hysterical barking reminiscent of the time he and Peg were both spooked by a strange noise that turned out not to be a trespasser or home invader but rather a stuck robot vacuum.
Probably privy to some noise outside that only he can hear, Jaye concurred.
When the dog finally quieted, Tommy said, “See Jaye, even Chi Chi isn’t buying it.”
Jaye bolted upright on the couch. “Look who’s talking! Trey told me that at his stag you won the door prize which was a blow job.”
Tommy reddened, went slack jawed.
Throwing her hands up in dismay, their mother cried, “What can I do with the whole lot of you!” Peg appeared as distraught over the disclosure as the act itself.
Bronwyn pulled Peg in tighter.
“Tommy!” Auntie chided him. She, along with their father, was one of the few to ever really discipline Tommy.
“Well I ain’t going anywhere! Fuck it. Come on Chi Chi let’s go,” Tommy said, as he scooped up and cradled the dog in one arm and then disappeared downstairs.
“That wasn’t necessary Jaye. This is about Dad’s indiscretion and not about the rest of us,” Becca said.
Jaye was dumbstruck. She resented the bossy, abruptness of Becca, something her sister felt entitled to as the eldest child. Jaye had always referred to her oldest sibling as Little Miss Bossy.
Shaking her head, Becca continued, “Please just get with the program. You don’t need to take his side y’know.”
Jaye glared. “Who said I was!”
“Aw cmon. It’s pretty obvious.”
“Is not! Shut up!”
“You shut up,” Becca retorted.
Stu blushed. Even his ears became pink points.
“Enough, girls!” their mother blared.
Jaye’s mouth opened like she was about to say something then just as quick decided against it. Still a million fuck you’s flew out like black bugs from a corpse.
Grandma Cryd clicked her tongue in disapproval. Tch. Tch.
Silence fell on the group. Then taking the last sip of her coffee, their mom said, “He’ll be like this for a day. Then he’ll come around. Tommy’s always been like that.”’
It was true. Both father and son had irrepressible natures. They would hold a joke or anecdote even a piece of gossip all day long, Tommy at school, their Dad at work, each dying to come home and say it. Still, it was Tommy who would then search their faces for response or approval, usually around the supper table that hummed with life.
Laughing weakly, Peg said, “Well we’ve exchanged our fucks and shut up’s as usual.” Yet an underlying pain, powerlessness and betrayal could be heard in that flat, hollow laughter. She appeared wounded, persevering like a war widow.
Jaye felt a wave of empathy for her mom. Like a sudden warming light. She wanted to hug her again. Inside Jaye was a clumsy juggling act of emotion, sympathy for her mom, anger at the rest. Yet it was all as inevitable as the moment itself.
Her mother, though usually quite fashionable, was still clad in her golden Calvin Klein housecoat. Jaye reckoned that after getting the early blasting shock from the morning news on TV, Peg didn’t bother to dress. Why bother? The day, if not the life, is fucked now!
Their mom stretched her legs out in front of her. “Well I guess that’s it then…Jaye why don’t you sleep over than we can all go together in the morning?”
Jaye nodded ever so slightly.
The family meeting had come to an end. There was a shift in energy. Those left stretched or smiled, set their empty cups in the sink and lingered about hopefully. The earlier angry energy had given way to complacency of feeling and manners. Peg and Bronwyn fell into a sisterly embrace. Becca and Stu hugged. Grandma Cryd smiled and looked from side to side. Sighed loudly.
Jaye made a bee-line to her old bedroom. The familiar sight of her princess canopy bed both comforted her and angered her somehow. She flopped down on it. There were now faded, yellowed spots on her wall where the posters of Justin Bieber and Eminem used to be.
Screw Tommy and Becca! They’re so damn bossy! They make me so mad! To hell with her “get with the program” pronouncement, I’m my own person. I will do my own thing. That’s it! That’s all! I know how I feel and that’s all that matters. It’s no Sophie’s choice or anything. But I’ll still go with my gut.
I’m going to the press conference tomorrow because I love Dad. I’m not going to try and keep up appearances like the rest of them are doing. Hah!
Then she burst into tears. Sobbing lightly, she felt wound in a knot of emotion that she was wont to unravel. But it didn’t last all that long. And she turned to other matters.
At least I don’t have to go to work tomorrow. Thank God, it’s the weekend! That’s one small blessing. Even though there is the press conference tomorrow. It will be awhile until the Sunday scaries come.
Though she usually did stomach crunches this time of day, snhe opted not to. I’m fine right now. So why bother? Besides, I think I’ve become too much about health and working out. All of that running and pushing myself to take my fitness to the next level, set ever higher records that I do. But for what? Where does it ever end? And how?
Also, people have been hinting to me that I’ve perhaps been over doing it. Even fat Cathy at work gives me funny looks sometimes and that never used to be the case.
Besides, a new plan had been forming within her. She had been trying to reach a middle ground in her life and mind simultaneously. Gotta move away from the edge and return to the center. Gotta tweak my life somehow.
Her plan was twofold, first, find herself, and then next, find a husband. It should be do-able, she judged. And for a moment she felt a spark of hope. She couldn’t wait for the latter especially. The moment when she caught him staring at her like she was the one. Whoever he happened to be.
Still, she recalled her dad remarking once. Yeah, you make plans alright. Then life decides otherwise...
Will this happen to me too? Will my plans be stymied? Will I end up victim to strange circumstance?
Just get through tomorrow, that’s all I need to do, any of us for that matter…But I’ll do it on my own terms, in my own way. Not theirs. If I had been unsure before at least it’s all clarified now.
Her mind did a sharp, painful U-turn back to her dad. The specter of her father still lingered on. Jaye could see him and feel him everywhere. The hallway seemed naked without him. Rooms empty of the booming voice and laughter, his indomitable presence. Even his smell, the pricey Hermes cologne that he slapped on liberally, uncaring of its effect on others, whether or not it sent them into an allergic reaction. For if it did, it would likely send him into a laughing fit.
He had physicality, a presence that was surely his signature gift. No wonder he became the absolute face of sports casting, who else could? A gifted athlete, a man’s man, he was a character unmatched, unleashed into a world like some tidal wave.
But now he was gone. Maybe only temporarily, but still. It was almost unfathomable. And it hurt. It really did.
Jaye suddenly had that feeling of I want my father, my parent, that thundering need that transcends, time, age, circumstance. It didn’t matter that she was in her early twenties. She still had the need to be seen, heard and loved by him. She felt her eyes moisten once again. Yet, she only briefly wept. It was like she had choked on an ice cube of emotion that had not fully unthawed.
Should I try texting him again? Nah. He said he’d get back to me when ready. Besides, I’ll see him tomorrow at the press conference anyhow.
The youngest of the three children and perhaps, possessing the least difficult nature, Jaye hadn’t been favored by her father. But she was the one that he would take with him on errands, those little side trips to the store, to pick something up or drop something off. It didn’t go unnoticed, however. Whatta little suck the other two would complain. All the time. In. fact.
Would Tommy and Becca have seen that as him being emotionally distant? Physically absent? Could that have been the genesis of their resentments? To him? To her even?
God knows, that trio, Father and Becca, and Tommy all shared the same high power needs, to be seen, heard, deferred to. What a triangle they are! Auntie Bronwyn also. She put an edge on things as well. Such a family of fighters, type A personalities forever bumping, clashing into one another. It was often operatic in intensity, cursing like arias, dramatic personas everywhere. However, Jaye knew she recoiled from conflict. But it wasn’t that way with the others, most notably her siblings.
They fought like tigers. Jaye recalled the time as children when Becca and Tommy were squabbling in the kitchen. They knocked against the fridge which had the fishing tackle box on top of it, fish hooks spraying down and puncturing their scalps, red locks and red pin pricks of blood dotting bewildered faces. Everyone laughed. Yet that moment seemed to set the standard for all the future moments yet to come.
Hearing a knock on the door, Jaye looked up. Her mother entered the bedroom. She was on the phone but paused and held it away from her ear as she said, “Becca and Stu are making supper. Come have some.”
Then her mom returned to the phone call in progress. “You think you’re going through something right now Doug? What about me? What about all of us!”
“That’s always been your problem Doug! You think everything is always about you.”
“Whaddaya think! You hooked up with a hooker for fuck’s sake! Probably no older than your own daughters.”
No more sad grey sky! The thundercloud has burst!
Jaye followed her mother out of the bedroom and down the hallway into the kitchen.
“Resign and do some community service! Hah!” her mother scoffed, “Try learning Spanish in jail!”
Her mother broke into derisive laughter.
“You shut up!”
“So what if I laid down when the Christmas tree was being set up!”
“You’ve never been able to see your own flaws, Doug. Just everybody else’s. That’s all.”
Without really wanting to, Jaye listened to, followed the phone exchange.
Once more, she felt a wave of sympathy for her mom. Jaye knew that her mom was the one who would be there for you in a clinch, the one to suffer, sacrifice, to eat or wear scraps while her dad would likely grin and order a steak. Yet Jaye still loved him regardless. The Electra complex and Freud be damned.
Grandma Cryd and Auntie Bronwyn were seated at the solid oak dining room table. Becca and Stu were at the stove unthawing a block of homemade soup and making grilled cheese sandwiches. The island had a bowl of mixed berries, a bowl of potato chips, a small plate of pickles, and a tray of Nanaimo bars, all the favored family fare.
Tommy was meeting an Uber delivery guy at the front door for his pizza. Then he disappeared back downstairs with it. When he and Jaye made eye contact across the room, Tommy flipped her the bird. Jaye stuck out her tongue.
Grandma Cryd beamed at Jaye. Though she tried not to notice it, the unsightly nevus that had developed on Cryd’s eyes bothered Jaye.
Then Cryd remarked to Bronwyn, her daughter, “I never did like his big Roman nose y’know… That Doug.”
“And that obnoxious cologne! Does he bathe in it or what?” Bronwyn added
“Such a horse’s ass!” Cryd grandly concluded.
Jaye hung her head. She hated hearing her dad being dissed like he was, though she knew that he had it coming. Just gonna eat fast and get outta here…
Cryd and Bronwyn continued to dissect and deconstruct Doug. Jaye squirmed in her seat. It reminded her of how after some blow out at work, everyone seemed hateful, suspicious. Yes, those times when it was trying to even return another’s gaze as she whisked about Fairford Industries.
She felt like speaking on his behalf, saying that unlike many, at least she grew up under a father’s wing. At least I had one unlike so many that I went to school with. Don’t have any daddy issues like all those pole dancers do…Maybe Jade Blu Afterglow too, who knows? Doesn’t that count for something in his favor?
Besides, there was also that matter of no one being perfect. Superman had kryptonite. Achilles had his heel. Why couldn’t her dad be granted some grace for his flaws too?
Most of all, Jaye wanted to remind the others of their flaws and foibles. She knew their collective penchant for being cranks. Wouldn’t that straighten those pinched features, sideways attitudes? But she thought better of it. Don’t wanna add any fuel to this blazing, crazy fire…
Still, she wished to point out to Cryd her years of playing family members off, one against the other one. She was notorious for instigating things then backing quietly away.
And what about Auntie? Bronwyn is beginning to sound more like grandma all the time, with her assertions that everyone’s nuts and everything’s just a scam, y’know. They were two peas in a pod really.
Thankfully before it went on too long, Stu and Becca began serving the soup and sandwiches. Jaye was still smarting from the earlier exchange with Becca. So she refused to make eye contact with her sister or even mumble thank you as she was being served a butter drenched sandwich.
“We must dine at home. God knows we can’t show our faces out in public.” Grandma Cryd griped.
Peg scoffed, “No kidding we can’t.”
Chi-Chi ran into the dining room. Standing upright on his hind legs, he yipped and begged for scraps like always. Grandma Cryd slipped him her crusts when she thought that no one was looking. She even slipped the dog one half sandwich which was sure to cause an uproar, just like whoever had the audacity to reach for the last slice of pizza.
As they all sat down to eat, including their mom who was off the phone now, Jaye searched the faces around the large, oak dining table. She looked for any signs of warmth or reconciliation but saw none.
In fact, her older sister was sporting “The Becca Bitchface.” Uh-oh, Jaye thought. She has that look again. The shoulder length dark auburn hair framing that penetrating gaze, English fine lips. It was as deadly as it was dazzling.
Jaye bolted down her supper. Then she returned to her bedroom.
She lay face down. That sad, longing feeling returned to her. It almost felt like there was a death. Though, she supposed, that in a sense there was a sort of passing with that sudden lack of innocence in the family. It heralded a change to that already fragile ecosystem that was their home. Whoever would have thought we would end up gathered over something like this?
And what would happen to her dad in the aftermath? Would he become one of the scarlet letter men who have to ring door bells and announce, “Good day. I’m your neighbor. By law, I’m required to inform you that I’m a registered sex offender.” She winced at that thought. Sure hope not. Oh right, that’s only if charges had been laid and none were. Thank God!
Jaye was especially sorry that he had lost his job. She knew that so much of his identity was wrapped up in the network. She had always pictured him as an old man wearing his industry medals since there had been no war for him to distinguish himself in. That would have made him so happy and proud. Instead, he’s now forced out. The fall from grace will be televised. ..
What were his demons about anyways? She didn’t know.
As far as she knew, he had always been a model husband and father. He was no player. Was anything hidden from us while growing up? Jaye didn’t think so. But you never really do know for certain.
Just those funny episodes with their old cat Penny who enjoyed being smacked on the bottom with the fly swatter, that’s all. They had discovered Penny’s pervy proclivities by accident one day. Out of sheer frustration at being steam rolled by the unrelenting feline their dad smacked the cat on the bum. But the cat purred and came back for another swat. Her dad roared with laughter. Then anytime someone picked up the fly swatter, Penny would come running for the masochistic abuse. It became a running joke in the household. Polymorphous perverse Penny. Channeling Freud.
Were there any other signs? Jaye wracked her brain.
She recalled that creepy TV documentary not that long ago about rare delicacies. When her dad said that he wouldn’t mind trying the Ortolan Bunting, dining on a rare songbird eaten whole while under a napkin to keep the aroma sealed in (or was that the shame of God kept out?), Jaye found the whole affair rather unseemly. Who could do that after all? But other than that, there was no behavior that she found suspicious. The songbird affair was just ghastly not sexual after all.
Jaye suspected that, as humans, dissatisfaction propels us. It unites us, separates us, and everything in between. Sometimes it even provides the inertia to keep going. Yet, she was wont to fall into that same trap. I’m not going to be a buzz kill like all the rest of them. That’s so like them to be super cranky and judgmental. Just move on…But knowing them, they never will. They never do. This will be just another dark chapter in the family mythology, the new world chronicles of the Welsh on the skids, damned and descending.
Hearing Chi-Chi scratching on her bedroom door, Jaye let the dog in. The tiny Chihuahua leapt into bed with her and curled nearly nose to nose with her. She could feel the warmth of the dog’s breath and body. But it smelled as fetid as ever, even though the dog was regularly groomed at a nearby, upscale doggy salon.
Without meaning to, she was soon fast asleep. She began dreaming of her dad who was back in grade school with her. He was whittling sharp a stack of pencils and pencil crayons when no pencil sharpener could be found. It was something he used to do for her in real life. Shavings falling, lilting snowflake like to the floor.
Mercifully enough, there was a cool summer breeze as they stood outside the network studio awaiting the start of the press conference. The sun overhead was like one unforgiving amber eye bearing down.
Glancing over at the adjacent parking lot, Jaye saw it starting to fill. She swallowed hard. Like the butterflies flitting about the lawn beyond, so, too, her stomach danced.
They had arrived early. Anxious to get it over with, the Petry clan had gathered en masse. Tommy even came despite last minute protestations, clad in his very best suit and tie. Only Grandma Cryd declined to attend because of tired legs and sore ankles.
Jaye showered and borrowed a dress from her mom. It was a charcoal gray Jones of New York. She was careful not to look untoward given the nature of the event. Don’t wanna look like a hoochie mama after all. (Save that for when I go out clubbing haha)
Sizing up the grim countenances of her other family members; Jaye knew that she must fall in line with them, with their prevailing righteous air of disdain. It seemed like she must either match their convictions and confidence or get crushed under by them. There didn’t seem to be any middle ground at all.
The media had set up for the spectacle, reporters, and technicians buzzing about like insects. Network reps were also in attendance. Jaye recognized some there. Others not.
Caught in the media glare, Jaye suddenly felt self-conscious. Is this how the Kennedy or Clinton kids feel? She stifled the urge to laugh.
Glancing about her, she spied two maple bugs gamely fucking on a nearby ledge and once more stifled the urge to laugh. How timely, she thought.
Her dad arrived. Pulling up in his sleek silver Lexus, he parked in his old, reserved parking spot. There was a pause. Jaye strained to see him. Finally, he emerged and saluted them from a distance. Then he ambled over to the platform.
There was an immediate buzz.
The paparazzi began jostling, jockeying for position. Most of the media fought for place, mainly as close to the fallen angel, Doug Petry, as they could. The air suddenly became heady with a near hysterical edge.
As ever, Doug was immaculate in a white summer suit and silk tie, with a Windsor knot. Tommy grimly inched over. Joining them as several noses crinkled and heads dropped, her dad strode up to the microphone. He cleared his throat.
Jaye attempted to make eye contact with her dad. But he was deeply invested in the moment. He nodded quickly to her then returned his focus. He still carried the same air of fierce dignity as always, like a general addressing his troops.
“Good afternoon everyone. It’s with my sincerest regret that I’m announcing my resignation. I will no longer be hosting The Middle Ground or will be associated with the network anymore. I’d like to apologize to my family first and foremost, of course. But I’d also like to extend my apologies to the network and to Miss Jade Blu Afterglow. Thank you.”
He smiled faintly, nodded.
Like a nuclear blast, a volley of camera blasts went off. Lights were near blinding momentarily.
“What about the allegations of rough sex?”
“What about the biting?”
Jaye burst out laughing. But she quickly covered her mouth. Her mom and Auntie Bronwyn glared. Becca rolled her eyes. Then she crossed her arms. Tommy frowned. Stu had that same deer-in-the-headlights look as ever.
Jaye looked for the two amorous maple bugs on the nearby ledge. She focused on them instead to stifle and distract herself. And she tried to relax in the summer light though it was still intense.
Sunning herself on the front step, Clare hoped to extract the last few rays of bliss from the
heavens. It was late in the day. The hour was running short. Past five thirty.
Seeing the cat across the street also on the front step doing the same, Clare smiled. Could be a
good story idea, just maybe?
She jotted the image down in her neon green, note pad that was balanced on her right knee.
Another to add to my ever-growing list…
But then Brooke opened the front door and said, “Supper’s ready.” Then her younger sister
closed the door and disappeared from sight.
Clare snapped her note pad shut and stood up.
Even though the day had somehow advanced more quickly than Clare could understand, with it already being supper time and the Formica table set, she still acquiesced and joined the others.
She wasn’t feeling hungry, at least only nominally so. There had been the bowl of ice cream earlier after all. Thus, she half-filled her plate with a bun and some pickled beets and poured a coffee.
Clare sat next to her younger sister, Brooke. Though siblings, the rather substantial age gap of fifteen years left them more strangers than sisters. Yet they exchanged faint smiles as Brooke munched on garlic bread and Clare set her neon green note pad on the table.
It was her trusty tome that she jotted down all observations and ideas for her story writing. She had even made a list of her favourite foreign or obscure words like sonder, tsundoka, litost. Anything and everything that aided the creative process. These days, Clare felt almost naked without it.
“Do you have to bring that every time you sit down?” Lorraine, their mother, wondered aloud, and then frowned.
Their dad looked at Clare curiously but remained silent.
It was a tense, hushed time. The air felt constricted. Energy moving in heavy, serpentine-like waves.
Clare sipped her coffee that tasted stale and looked about.
Her mother appeared distraught with faraway, almost teary eyes that glistened strangely somehow. Then she shifted her gaze downward.
Wonder what’s going on?
But she looks like that half the time. Always in an invisible battle with stresses that kept her in a semi-stupor, forever in a nervous struggle with spectres from the past, phantoms to come. What’s it about now? What happened this time to set her off?
Though she was attached to her mother, Clare struggled to understand her. Those lapses in spirit and focus, mood regulation, that inner mechanism that faltered often like a rusty engine, a leaky valve. It used to make her fearful as a child when she’d witness her mother near collapse or actually in collapse on the couch, curled into that funny, baby-like ball. Back in the day, it could be anything from a scorched omelette to a fender bender. Even a curt remark from a co-worker.
Clare had come to expect it eventually. She had begun to anticipate these tiny breakdowns with an Old Faithful level of regularity. The pressure, the build-up, the blow. “Your mom is as high strung as a Siamese cat”, Gary, their dad would observe aloud, after the stomping off, the slammed doors, and the tearful recriminations. She would blubber until her eyes were puffy and red and swollen. Then she would apply concealer to hide it like slapping icing on a burnt cake. And so it was.
That serpent wave.
“What’s wrong?” Clare finally asked her mother.
Her mom shrugged, feigned a smile.
Clare eyed her suspiciously. Munching on a beet soaked in vinegar, Clare savoured the flavour.
But she continued to stare into a scene that had replayed throughout her life like some untoward news loop, with that same supper hour regularity. In her mind, Clare pictured the orubus, the snake swallowing its tail. She had first feared her mother’s weakness. Even marvelled at the depths it could sometimes take, like that Christmas morning when the cat suddenly died and the turkey supper was called off because of it.
But eventually guarded wonder gave way to pure disdain. As a teenager, she grew embarrassed of her mother and all the scenes and meltdowns. She even felt occasional flashes of anger over it. Once, dismayed over her mom crying on a recliner while baby Brooke looked sticky and needy in her play pen, Clare purposefully stepped on her bare feet as she walked past. Her mom yelped with pain and cried, “Right on my sore foot even.”
“You would say that!” Clare scoffed.
Though not lacking in compassion, as Clare carefully escorted random ladybugs out of their house and onto the safety of a nearby leaf, kept a vigilant eye out for hungry stray cats, she didn’t know how a casual, instinctual kindness transferred to adults such as her parents, her mom especially.
Shouldn’t they be capable enough? Shouldn’t mom be a mom like her friend’s mothers who were as composed as judges, as sturdy as the Sphinx? You would think so.
“Aww you ate all the beets,” Brooke whined.
“I didn’t know you even liked them,” Clare said.
“Yes, you did,” Brooke argued.
Brooke was twelve and nearly the same height as the twenty-seven-year-old Clare, though neither sister was very tall in fact. Yet, Clare was aggrieved by her sibling’s sullen, difficult nature. Gone were the days when Brooke was the cutesy, little preschooler who anxiously clutched the tiny squares of what was left of her baby blankie. They now fought over the bathroom. Then the TV. Always the computer. It bothered Clare when Brooke would have outbursts over things that she didn’t even dare ask for and then get them somehow. The one hundred-dollar runners. Pink braces. Not having to eat potatoes. Everything.
Still, I need to cut Brooke some slack. I think she might have some of those same constricting fears that mom has. Those demons of anxiety that jackhammer the brain. Now is that nature or nurture? Or both? How Brooke frets over the news about climate change, crime waves! Was that even normal for a twelve-year-old? Maybe nowadays given that this is the age of anxiety after all. Who knows?
Thank God the kid at least has baseball. What would she do without it?
Though she was initially ecstatic as a teenager to hear that her mother was expecting and she would finally get the sibling she always wanted. Clare soon found her role wanting. It seemed that she was just an extra set of hands to keep the baby from tumbling, sticking things into her drooling mouth, wandering off. Whenever they went shopping it was teenaged Clare’s job to be there to help keep the little one from touching things, grabbing off the shelf and this was when she longed to be hanging out with friends at the mall or in the football stands. Brooke ruined my life, Clare once remarked to a school friend as she did homework with one hand and held the baby with her other.
But Clare’s real grievance lay in how her mom perceived the youngest child. Brooke gets to be normal.
“I had to be indigo”, Clare scribbled once in the journal that the school guidance counsellor encouraged her to keep and the words jumped back at her with an astounding clarity. She underlined them in purple ink. Drew boxes around them. Then turned the page.
“But that was 1990, last century”, her mother said in a thin, scratchy voice that hoped to explain itself away.
I was a product of fad and fashion. I was sent by the cosmos to usher in a new earth, to read auras, heal and lead and teach. I was a space age Joan of Arc. Brooke came from more circumspect parenting. She was sent to play Little League. That’s all.
Their dad covered his mouth to half stifle a burp.
“Ewww.” Brooke said
He glanced up from his plate like a fish bobbing to the water’s surface.
Their mom frowned. Then she brightened a moment later and asked, “Can someone pass the Coke? And the spaghetti, please?”
Gary, her husband, obliged.
Holding her tumbler towards him, Brooke said, “Pour me some Coke too.”
Sipping her coffee, Clare had finished eating. She pushed her plate aside. She looked all about her.
Hmm. Clare began to jot on her notepad.
“What are you always writing?” Brooke asked, testily.
“Hope it’s not about me,” their dad joked.
“It’s not actually polite to always be doing something at the table…I think,” their mother faltered.
“Why?” Clare said in a defensive tone.
Shaking her head lightly, their mom said, “Just isn’t…dunno.”
“Well if you don’t even know why.“
“Oh come on,” their dad interjected. “When is your next game Brooke?”
“Tomorrow at six. We play The Rockets.”
“Then we’ll have to have an early supper. Maybe go through the drive-thru.” he reflected
Brooke smiled. At twelve years of age, she lived for take-out fries.
“Sure hope I get to start as pitcher!” Brooke added.
Their dad nodded. Smiled.
“If they start Gigi again I’m gonna be mad.”
Shrugging his shoulders, their dad said, “Coach’s kid. Whaddaya expect?” Then he crinkled his nose.
“Is gram coming? Should we pick her up?” Brooke wondered.
Their dad scoffed. “Crazy old thing. Won’t even hardly leave her house let alone go down to the baseball field.”
Clare smiled. It was true. Their difficult grandmother was seemingly becoming even more difficult with age. Whatever…Must be a familial thing. That serpent wave again.
Believing Brooke to actually enjoy baseball, Clare was astounded. She remembered only doing things to please others at that age. All that funky looking new age art that she created but was unmoved by. Dalliances into astronomy and folk healing, interests that she had readily discarded and never looked back upon. That was me, indigo wunderkid at twelve. But whatever.
Continuing to jot on her note pad, Clare observed her mother’s self-absorption, her dad’s selective attention, and her own emotional absence. Should be good fodder for my next story. I do need to get a good grade soon.
Clare was enrolled in an advanced creative writing program at the local university. Picturing her mentor, Molly, in her mind, Clare slightly cringed. She remembered the teacher’s chagrin at recognizing herself in the latest piece that Clare wrote. Though she tried her best to camouflage her protagonist, making her a different race even, Molly saw through the façade and promptly awarded her a B-. It devastated Clare. As she had a vision of being a glowing, straight A+ student, surely an emerging Gallant or Munro, it had eclipsed her sense of self to the point of switching majors. But not for long. Got too much good material all around me.
Sighing, her mother stood and gathered up plates.
“I’m still eating!” Brooke cried.
“I’m not taking your plate,” her mother said. Then she left the dining room.
Glancing over at her dad, Clare met his gaze.
He was growing so grizzled looking that he was fast becoming a stranger to Clare. She thought he almost looked walrus-like now with his round face and bald head, the gray spikey stubble of a short beard. But at least he looks the part of a geneticist. Or so she believed anyone in that field appears.
He worked at the provincial lab. He focused mainly on gene sequencing and sometimes took classes on the side.
Yet he had an abstracted awareness that left him seemingly oblivious to the simple goings on about him. If he was a little more on the ball, then maybe mom wouldn’t always be breaking down. But then she also thought that perhaps that was a protective wall he threw up to keep him insulated from the craziness that sometimes erupted around him.
Lost keys. Thrown dishes. Loud, cursing words. It wasn’t always like that, true enough, Clare knew. But when that funny serpentine shadow of living came to the family it certainly was.
Brooke leapt up from the table and turned to go.
“You’re supposed to scrape your dish and put it in the sink,” Clare reminded her.
Frowning in return, Brooke did as instructed. Then she disappeared into her bedroom.
Speaking leisurely, almost rhetorically, her dad said, “Well, that’s enough of pasta I guess. Gonna go see how the Blue Jays are doing.”
Then he, too, disappeared into the living room. He sat in front of the big screen TV as he did nearly every night of the week.
Supper was over. Clare flipped her note pad shut. Need a break from it, she judged, at least for a while.
The next day, as they drove to Connaught baseball field, Clare sat in the back seat beside her sister. Clare clutched a large to-go coffee in one hand and her trusty, neon green, note pad in the other.
“You’re not bringing that thing, are you?” Brooke said.
Clare threw her a dirty, sideways glance.
Leaning forward in her seat, Brooke said, “Mom, Clare’s gonna write in that stupid book through the whole game and embarrass me.”
But their mom didn’t respond.
“Mom, Clare’s gonna embarrass me with that!” Brooke protested.
“Oh come on,” their mom finally said. It wasn’t apparent who she was directing her disapproval at, though.
“Well, if you weren’t all so crazy then I wouldn’t have to take notes, now would I?” Clare scoffed.
Everyone fell silent. Clare could feel the air squeezing serpent-like again. Maybe like the hydra that Hercules laboured over?
Brooke threw her an insolent look. But Clare chose not to respond. She knew that Brooke was at the age when appearances were everything. Insecurity as ubiquitous as a walked batter. Or a foul ball.
Clare also knew that Brooke had lately developed a wicked case of eco-anxiety. Brooke often conjectured aloud about, what if the earth heats to the point where it catches fire or what if the coast lines flood over and we all drown or even freeze to death in an ice age. All of that environmental stuff along with her persistent fear of home invasions had made her little sister somewhat of a nervous wreck. Poor kid…
At least she wasn’t saddled with the expectation of somehow saving and redeeming this embattled world. Indigo Like Me. Lol.
Do they even realize the fallout I felt from the whole indigo experience? Or the cultural trend to raise kids and students with oodles of self-esteem, that sense of being special? Fall down go boom. That’s all I have to say.
Clare looked at her mother.
Their mom was still tense and moody, an emotional hang over that Clare suspected might last for days. She sat stiff and silent in the passenger seat of their SUV.
Their dad drove.
Pulling into the parking lot next to the field itself, they scrambled out. Then they headed for the stands. Brooke went and joined her little league team, The Salt Queens, in their dug out.
The stands were pretty much full by the time they got there. Clare ended up having to sit directly behind her parents who managed to huddle together on the hard wooden bench.
Sipping her coffee and with her note pad on her lap, Clare settled in for the game.
It was supper hour. The sun was bright and eye level. Clouds decorated the sky in a curl of calligraphy. Though Regina was notoriously windy, there wasn’t any this late afternoon.
Many in the stands had arrived with take-out drinks and meals. Subs and to-go coffee especially. Clare saw that the fans seemed as concerned about eating and updating their phones as they did about the actual game. It did have a social feel though, showing up for one’s child or grandchild’s sake as to be expected. Still, there was a generalized sense of comradery that appealed to Clare.
She was glad to be outdoors and in the sun. Academic life afforded her few opportunities like this. Sometimes she hardly saw the light of day. It felt like a luxury to be leisurely sipping coffee, kicking back for a glorious evening of nothingness. Who knows, maybe I’ll even get inspired to jot a few things down…
Besides, the whole baseball thing is so important to Brooke. I should show her some support. God knows, I haven’t exactly been the best older sister.
But then Clare saw her mother’s strained expression as she turned towards her father. Clare sat directly behind them so was privy to all they said or did.
“But you don’t understand Gary,” she choked.
He stared straight ahead.
Clare saw the cords in her mother’s neck stick out like tightened pins.
“I’m on probationary status now. The next time uhhh-“
“Would’ja lookit that! They’re starting that Graves girl as pitcher. I knew it,” he scoffed.
Clare glanced to the baseball field ahead and saw Gigi Graves at the pitcher’s mound. Aww, poor Brooke. She wanted to be the starter pitcher so bad.
Then the game began.
“So typical. The coach’s kid gets to start. Watch she’ll probably pitch the whole game. And who says little league isn’t political? Hah!” Throwing his hands up in the air, he fumed.
Catching a sideways glimpse of her dad’s face, his features were pinched, sharp. Boy, he’s mad, Clare knew. She knew that he had been a washout in sports except for as a goalie in hockey. Lisa Simpson style.
As the first batter trotted up to the mound, Clare tapped her pen on her notepad absently.
The batter immediately hit a grounder and got to second base.
Fans clapped, whistled.
Turning to her husband again, Clare watched her mother tug on his sleeve and hold up a damning text to him.
“Just read what my supervisor sent to me. Just read it,” she beseeched him.
“Lorraine, I’m trying to concentrate on the game. We can talk about this later.”
Clare saw her mother shrink from him. Then she watched her mother become absorbed on her phone.
The next batter dragged both her feet and the bat on her way to the mound almost like she had a grudge against the ground. On the first pitch, she slugged the ball and hit a home run.
The stands erupted.
“Did’ja see that! Brooke wouldn’t have opened like that.” He shook his head. Stamped his foot. “I oughta go over there and tell Coach Graves what I think of him.”
Clare watched her mom. Teary eyed and pleading, with her long, thin, very beautiful neck tightening once again into those ghastly cords, she leaned over and said, “For God’s sake Gary this is more important than a ball game. I could be losing my job.”
Clare continued to tap on her note pad. She realized that she was watching her parents more than the ball game. But what can I do? Mom seems so upset. Why doesn’t he just hear her out? She would probably be less dramatic if he would just give her the floor.
As the next batter got walked to first base, her dad exclaimed, “Hmphff! It reminds me of what they did to me in hockey. They’d start someone else in net just because his dad was the coach and his uncle was the ref.” Once more, he threw up his hands in disgust.
Clare was somewhat surprised by his outburst. Being a mild mannered geneticist by day, she had never suspected he would transform into the likes of a baseball dad at a little league game. Was that even a thing? I thought it was like tennis dad and hockey mom for that matter. But she saw how his thin, English lips were puffed and protruding in mild outrage.
Overhead, more clouds filled a darkening sky. The curlicues and wisps of earlier were now being replaced by a solid, dark grey shield.
Another batter, a tall loping redhead, made her way to the mound. She was promptly walked. A polite patter of clapping ensued.
With her jaw clenched in anger, her mother said, “If it was you losing your job now, it would be a different story!”
He threw her a dirty look.
Clare listened as her parents became sidetracked by an argument over who put more into their professional lives, which then led to their marriage, and finally the relationship itself. Like so many of their disputes, the narrative was endless and circular in nature like the serpent swallowing its tail.
Fuck, they’re really going at it.
She sipped her coffee and jotted a few points into her note pad. She had lost interest in the game like a meal that had soured upon pulling a hair from it.
But then her dad abruptly stopped arguing. He returned his attention to the game. “Poor Brooke, sitting on the bench as ever,” he loudly lamented.
“C’mon Gary, it’s just a game. This is real life,” Her mother said, thrusting the cell phone in his face again.
“Well, what do you expect me to do about it?” he retorted.
Her mother broke into tears. She began to quietly cry as she sat there. With her shoulders slightly slumped, she appeared defeated.
Seeing others in the stands turn to look at her with long, questioning faces, it didn’t faze her one bit.
But her dad turned and said, his voice lowered. “Lorraine, people are looking…even Karen Graves y’know, the Coach’s wife.”
“Oh, who cares!” her mother snapped back. “She spent the eighties going to the bar with no panties on. Plus they’ve had that same dead Chev up on cinderblocks in their driveway for God knows how long.”
Clare watched her dad flush red and straighten back into his seat.
But then The Salt Kings managed to catch two pop balls, one after the other. The beleaguered Salt Kings were now one out away from closing this brutal inning.
The score was already 3-0 for The Rockets.
But Clare no longer cared.
She watched her mother’s meltdown with a painful clarity. In the past, Clare would have thought that her mother constantly posed as a victim, perhaps even in hopes of being saved or rescued. But now Clare recognized her mother’s vulnerability, fragile as if her spine was fashioned out of stained glass rather than bone. It’s just her anxious nature. That’s all.
Besides, who did mom ever have to hear her or help her with her nervous sensitivity? Dad didn’t. Nor did I.
It was then that an even more painful realization seized Clare. She then understood how hard she had been on her mother. And a grief and a guilt that defied reason struck, that wound all about her in its dark, painful logic, tightened her in its coils. For the serpent had entered the baseball field just like it did the garden. Could she send it away? As she pondered the situation, only grimmer clarification arose.
Even grandma was no help, with her miserable, paranoid nature, always believing others were stealing from her, talking about her or watching her. She lived mainly shut in, apart from the family and most of society for that matter. And when she wasn’t accusing others of misdeeds, she was simply a hypochondriac cluster of aches and pains. She puffed on cigarettes, complained to the wall. She usually had more than one ash tray lit up. She lived alone with her bird. They argued steady with one another. Mother snake to the masses. The old grand dame herself. There had been no support for her mom there. Not ever.
Have I just been a luftmensch to mom, the whole family even? (Another great word to add to my collection). What with my pretensions towards writing and all. Should this starving artist just leave the nest and finally give everyone a break? I’m beginning to feel like a pain in the neck luftmensch, that’s for certain. Food for thought…
Clare looked about.
The sky had darkened. A light wind emerged seemingly from nowhere. The weather was beginning to change. Clare looked towards the heavens for answers.
Her mom’s body was heaving, with deep heavy sobs.
Others in the stands began to murmur. They began to huddle under hoodies, slip their hands in their pockets and zip up their jackets.
Clare crumpled the empty cardboard cup in her hand. Seeing a garbage can off to the side of the stands, she tossed it in.
Glancing at her mother who wept, Clare had the sudden urge to embrace her, comfort her. But it wasn’t physically possible right then. So, she just stared at the angel in ruins, beauty in ashes, fallen queen.
Clare then understood that apart from her excesses, she had been a good mother. She kept us in food after all, hadn’t she? I’m not dead or in jail.
And as far as that whole indigo child thing went, that was just the product of a high strung, young woman who only dreamt and hoped the best for her child and creation itself. She meant no harm. She even meant well, like the old saying goes. She was just in her “earth mother”, hippy dippy period as mom likes to explain it. Back when she used to dress in a folky way, Birkenstocks and bangles and tie-dye skirts, her signature. That’s all.
Besides, hadn’t the new age of Aquarius done a number on us all? Clare knew it had been troubling to her. And she balked at her peer’s interest in drugs and occultism.
Clare recalled her mom telling her about the bliss of an uninterrupted bath. Or being able to squat on the toilet in peace without someone pounding on the door. Had to always lock myself into the bathroom to keep you and the cats and everybody out, she quipped one time. Ah, the life of a mother…
Most damning of all, however, was that oft repeated low point her mom liked to recount. It was how once in the earliest days of their marriage, when Clare was new born and they were very broke and starting out. The fridge was nearly empty one morning, sans milk. And out of sheer desperation she squirted breast milk into her cup of coffee.
Yet, when things were better, she saved Brooke’s umbilical cord blood in a tissue bank, set aside funds for their future. She worked. Did it all. Gardened. Blended the vegetables they refused to eat, thinly disguising them in other food stuffs. Hauled them off to swimming and skating lessons even as they howled in protest. Everything.
Maybe I should be mad at the wider culture and not mom? The feminism that forced her into a corner of professionalism that was strangling her and breaking her spirit? Yes, the politically correct culture that was hard on the family, that mocked and derided the institution every chance that it got. On TV, in both academia and the government, everywhere these days, that venomous agenda. Fathers especially. But mothers too. So, sad, intentionally bad!
Rain began to lightly fall.
Thrusting her hand out palm side up, Clare felt it begin to spit.
“Rain,” someone groaned.
On the field, everyone seemed to freeze in recognition of the sudden change in the weather.
Then the sky revolted, burst. It had darkened overhead like it was protesting the coming night. Rain fell in heavy, apocalyptic waves, like sheets of nails pouring down.
Shouts sounded. The game was immediately called. The stands, the field and dug outs emptied.
Everyone ran to the parking lot and drove off.
With the windshield wipers pounding a steady, scraping rhythm, they drove. Inside their SUV, Clare could smell that damp, porous, rain odour.
“Rain always has to ruin everything,” their mom groaned.
“Yeah, it sucks,” Brooke agreed.
Brooke was panting beside Clare. Rain was trickling off the end of her aquiline nose. They drove home. As they pulled into the driveway, they clambered to get into the safety of their house.
Spying Clare’s notepad left on the seat, Brooke said to her sister, “Don’t you want your book?”
Clare glanced at it lying abandoned. Its neon green colour was darkened by rain drops. But it whispered of misappropriation and shouted of misunderstanding. Private family fodder, that should perhaps be held in a different, gentler regard.
She paused. Blinked.
“Fuck that thing,” Clare said.
Then Clare held the car door open for her mom. She lifted her jean jacket high to shield her mom as much as possible from the rain. They both hurried inside.