Fiction: RosalieOctober 10, 2010
My next post isn’t quite “cooked” yet, so I thought I’d post the beginning of a story I am working on. This was started during a fiction course I took recently, and I think I’m ready to get back to work on it. It’s still very rough, but comments are welcome.
What I hear is this: the deep purring of my fridge in the kitchen, my living room wall clock staccato and insistent. How did my ears ever learn to tune it out? What else? I hear sound below me, on the street. My brain tells me it must be traffic – cars stopping, going, turning. There are probably horns and voices mixed in. I think I hear music from the coffee shop on the first floor of my building – the high, sharp notes. If I stop my brain from naming it all, it begins to sound like a huge, ancient animal moan, all wounded wings and empty belly.
I hear myself – my wheeze and my hose rubbing against the hem of my skirt. I hear the walls contracting, pushing, crawling in and down. I hear the wallpaper flowers creeping together to make a thick overgrown velour mess. No. Stop. Tea.
In the kitchen, I reach up to find the tea canister feeling for it with my hands. Al always got the tea canister down for me. Our lunchtime teas. Al’s thick with sugar and Carnation condensed milk and mine black. On the tray, I would put a plate of my shortbread cookies and the paper for Al. We would drink tea and I would knit while he would read our horoscopes, for fun. I will have to keep the teabags on the counter now. I stand one hand on the counter and wait for the kettle to boil.
Whenever we heard the train on a Saturday morning, we would tear off down to Rosalie’s house to watch it. The rule was, we weren’t allowed to make for her house until we heard the first far whistle. Then all you’d see would be asses and dust as we’d race each other from wherever. Rosalie’s dad had a Popsicle for the first one of us to set both feet on the front step. Rosalie would be there too, all her freckles out in the sun. Even then, I liked to count them, when she wasn’t looking.
There was nothing between Rosalie’s house and the train, only the road. Just past the train tracks, there was a bank of bushes leading down to the bay. From Rosie’s front step, we were as close to the train as our parents would let us. It was the loudest thing we’d hear all week. All that bright blue and green peacefulness and the train would come ripping right through it, sending us all off on dreams of elsewhere. When it was right in front of us, we’d start to yell, to see if we could still hear our voices. Then the conductor would appear, leaning out of the window and he’d stick out his arm and give us a salute. He’d blow the whistle an extra time for us, even though Rosalie’s dad told us he wasn’t supposed to do that. Even though the train was only coming from Saint John’s, it always seemed to be us to be passing through our small town of Blandford Bay on its way to somewhere we’d never even heard of, and the conductor, in his sunglasses and blue rolled-up shirt sleeve never looked like anybody’s dad.
What I see is this: A girl, maybe in her early twenties is sitting on the street, her back against the side wall of the drugstore. She has a dog, a thin dusty looking black Labrador who is sleeping next to her, front paws outstretched. She has a sign and a bowl in front of her. Her head is bowed down, her ropes of hair in her face, under a black hood. I take my tea and sit in the chair closest to the window, and look at her. She barely moves. I wonder, is she sleeping? All around her, people are moving. She is the only still thing on this street. We are the only still things on this street – this stone statue of a girl and me in the window, my thin bones. It is like no one can see her. T he only way I know I’m not making her ups is that the walkers veer a little when they get to where she is sitting., almost like there is a glass fence extending around her. How did she come to get the dog? Was he her’s in the life before this? Did they find each other in the blackened backstreets behind the drugsore, and did she offer her last food for the night? Is she finally able to sleep, face pressed into his thick fuzz trusting he will wake her if they need to run, his small strong heart naming the rhythm of her dreams, his rising ribs lifting her up for a moment, holding her like a fatherly hand and then softly falling with his breath, deeper into a world of the time before. When Al was well, I could always fall asleep with my fingers buried in the grey scrub of his chest. When he passed, it was all horribly gone, his chest hair, even his belly. His wonderful, plush belly, like risen bread dough. When he passed, his skin was stretched so thin, I thought I would make a hole when I touched him. I felt him disintegrating under my hands. No. Look. There is a man in a suit who has stopped in front of the girl. He puts something in her bowl and I see her hair move, a little glimpse of white face. He is saying something to her, his hand gesturing to the dog. Nothing on her moves, just her face, turned up to him, through her hair. As he walks away from her, she leans forward to look in the bowl and her hand arcs out of her pocket, a long, thin finger poking out from the middle of her fist. I swallow my breath and swivel my chair away.
Seeing Rosie, I mean really seeing her, took me a long time. I know the moment. We were all down by the water, on the rocks, about ten of us. We had a bonfire going, and were all sitting on rocks around it. Someone had a bottle of rum pilfered from a father’s stash and the bottle was going around the circle. When it came to me I raised the bottle in a cheer and drank, careful to keep it up to my lips as long as the other guys had. When I was done, I passed the bottle to my left. It was Rosalie. She was looking at me face as she took the bottle. Her hands were freezing. She had her sweater poking out through her jacket sleeve and it was wrapped around her palm, so when her hand touched mine, I felt wool and and her tiny,cold fingers. She took the bottle, and put it between her knees, staring at it. The light from the bonfire was reflecting off the bottle, and as she leaned over her knees, sniffing at the rum, I saw.
What I smell is this: bed sheets dried in an electric dryer, scorched and stale, my skin too long in the bed, sharp and sad. So many years of sleeping on this side of the bed have scooped out a me-shaped dent, like a snow angel, and I swear this morning I feel my skin being stitched into the fabric, held there. I turn my head to look for Al. Stupid. If I could float up and above the bed, I could probably see a wide, friendly Al-shaped imprint parallel to mine. We brought this bed with us when we moved, we’d had it forever. It seemed like bad luck to buy a new one. I consider trying to roll over into Al’s dent, to see if I can escape my own. But no. I don’t want to change it. I let the springs and coils keep their memories. I stay on my side of the bed, my arm and legs heavy as this day that has started without me. I let my skin knit itself into the flannel sheets. I let my eyelids meet. I stay. But wait. What I smell is this: cigarette smoke. Unmistakable, sick. My stomach rolls and my mouth dries. Someone is smoking in the apartment hallway. How dare they avoid polluting their own home by standing in front of my door and polluting mine? Damn. I pull my skin free of the bed, pull my robe on and go to the door. There are locks and chains to deal with, so I just peep out of the doorhole, to see who is smoking. I’m too late. What I’m smelling is the hanging, exhaled smoke of somebody already moved on to their next moment. So. Back to bed? No. Tea.
I take my tea and go sit near the window. Where is Kitten? The dirty-haired, foolish homeless girl, I’ve named her Kitten. Partly because of the dog. Partly because she’s so tiny. Mostly because she seems so foolishly brave, baring her little claws at these people who could do her so much harm. Her hostility sits there, right over her hood, like a halo. I’ve been watching her on the days I get up. She and I are constant. People and cars move between and around us. Still, she sits. Still, I hang in my window, with my tea. Once, how many days ago? I watched her leave her spot. She picked up her empty basket, and shoved it into a backpack. Then she stood up, by rolling over on her knees first and using her hands. She lowered her hood and I could see her face. She had the same kind of complexion as girls from home – pink and freckled. Her little sharp fingers poked at her hair, pulling it back behind her ears. She paused for a moment, hands holding her hair there, and then she pulled the hood back up. She moved away and the Labrador followed her, behind the drugstore. I said a prayer. The first prayer I said since Al. I prayed the Hail Mary. I don’t see Kitten now.. I thumb through the faces on the street looking for her black hood. Where is she? I blow on my tea and wait.
I’m coming back from the bathroom when I see her. I haven’t reached the chair yet to sit down, but I see the dog. I see his mouth snapping open and shut and his black fur puffed high. I set the tea down and press my hands against the glass, trying to understand. Kitten. She’s in the arms of a man. Her hood is down and her hair is swirling around her face. The man is behind her, holding her like Al used to hug me from behind. I can’t see his face. . It is buried behind her hair. She is cycling her legs in the air as he holds her. What? She’s trying to get free. I step back from the window and freeze, my heart tight and quick. What to do? Somebody will see. Won’t they? I inch forward. She’s out of his arms, but he has her by the sleeve. His mouth is mean.
My coat. Where is my coat?
The smell of Rosalie baking bread in the kitchen could pull me home. I swear I could smell it as I left the fishplant to go home for lunch, a warm, yellow smell that would make my mouth water. The loaves would be high and firm and round in the window, set on racks to cool, to be ready for my lunch. I’d open the door and there would be Rosie at the sink or setting the table, humming.
We never locked the door in Blandford Bay in those days. There were neighbors in and out all the time, and there was always a kettle on the boil and a story to be told. I’d often come home to find a crowd of women around the kitchen table eating hot buttered bread and gossiping. “Stop telling your lies”, I’d say and they’d all giggle like maidens and fuss over me, while Rosie made up my plate.
Years later, when the cod were almost gone and the government put a moratorium on fishing, things started to change. The youngsters were different than we were at that age. I mean, we got up to all kinds of bad, but we were never mean about it. There had been damage done. Windows had been beaten out of Peddle’s Confectionary and beer stolen. I was putting in half-shifts at the plant,;that was all we were needed for. I told Rosalie I wanted her to start locking the door when she was home alone or gone out during the day. I remember her looking at me like I had just blasphemed. . “Why would I want to do that?” she said, and sure enough, I’d come home on a row of days to find the door wide open to the world.
“What will the neighbors say if they come over and find the door locked? Besides, if someone wants to come and make away with a loaf of bread or a bottle of beer, they’re welcome to it. If they are stealing, they must need it more than we do. “
“Rosalie, it’s not the bread I’m worried about. What if they make away with you?”
She’d laugh and tell me I was foolish. I kept on her, though. Finally, she promised to lock the door if I’d cut back on my smokes.
I remember the first time I came home after our promises. I came home early that day, because we had got news that the plant was going to shut down for six weeks. I couldn’t help but smoke my way home. When I got to the door, it was locked. Taped to the door was a note:
Gone to the store. The key to the door is in the mailbox. Let yourself in. Back soon.”
Well, didn’t I laugh. What could I say? That was my sweet Rosalie.