Format: Trade Paperback, 352 pages
Publisher: Vintage Canada
ISBN: 978-0-307-39948-9 (0-307-39948-6)
Pub Date: February 7, 2012
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Dawn should have known it was over the night the men showed up with the car. The jig was up, the goose was cooked, it was going to get worse before it got better. It was the beginning of the end, her grandparents would have said, only they would have seen it coming from Day One, if not sooner. This was not unusual: in Frank and Vera’s stories, things often ended before they began.
But Dawn was too busy on Day One to look for signs of the end. Her father and new mother were coming to take her and Jimmy to live with them, and a lot had to be done to make the beginning work out right. She was up and scrubbed and dressed before the darkness in the dining room began to melt. “For heaven’s sake!” Vera exclaimed when she came downstairs in her brown plaid housecoat. She checked the bluefaced clock above the sink. “They aren’t coming until lunch, you know.”
Vera had short grey hair, which she rolled in curlers and unrolled before going to church or the grocery store, and about five hundred aprons. Frank was tall and thin and wore glasses. He was very good at fixing things other people just threw out, like lamps with frayed cords and toasters that no longer toasted. Vera was good at explaining things. She could tell you the relations of everyone in Sault Ste. Marie, how so-and-so was the second cousin of such-and-such, who married the aunt of the girl you sat beside when you made your First Communion. “And that’s who they are to you,” she’d say.
“And I’ll tell you another thing,” Vera called over the running water in the kitchen. “They’ll probably be late, knowing your father.”
That was something else about Vera: she always wanted to tell you another thing.
Dawn adjusted her ponytails and sat up straight. Very soon, the beginning would begin and none of this would count, especially if she could convince Jimmy to help. But instead of sitting and waiting properly, Jimmy unpacked his cars from the cardboard box at the front door and played in his pyjamas under the table with the claw feet. His blond hair was sticking up all over his head. “You’re spoiling it,” Dawn hissed at him. He ignored her and whispered to Professor Pollo. Professor Pollo was a brown beanbag monkey smoking a big black pipe. Sitting on the bowl of the pipe was a tiny Professor Pollo, smoking an even tinier pipe. Jimmy claimed there was another, nearly invisible Professor inside the tiny pipe, but Dawn couldn’t see it. Jimmy also claimed the Professor could talk, which just showed what babies five-year-olds were. Now Jimmy held the monkey to his ear, listening. “Professor Pollo says, ‘Poop to you,’” he said solemnly.
“You won’t be ready when they get here,” Dawn persisted.
She was three years older and had to explain everything. “Don’t you get it?”
Frank said, “They won’t be here for a while yet, Tinker. Why don’t you see if there’s something on the television?” But there was only the morning news, all Nixon, Nixon, Nixon. Vera told Dawn to make herself useful and bring up six Mason jars from the basement; she was going to do down some beets.
Five minutes before noon, Dawn left the kitchen full of vinegar clouds and went to stand on the porch beside their brown suitcases. Then she walked to the driveway and looked up and down Sylvan Avenue. Vera said theirs used to be the only house on the street, when the road was a lane and it was all farmland out here. Now it was a subdivision of beige bungalows with sliding glass doors and patios, and theirs was the only house on the street that looked haunted: three storeys of dark brick with cobwebby attachments like trellises and eaves and storm windows.
Even the yard looked spooky: gnarled apple trees on one side, tangled forest hiding the creek on the other. In a few minutes, though, Dawn thought happily, she and Jimmy would also live in a house with a patio.
At one o’clock, she sat down on the steps. Lunch was sometimes at twelve, sometimes at one. It varied with families. At two, they had pancakes for lunch. Dawn said she wasn’t hungry, but Vera told her to stop moping and get to the table or she, Vera, would give her, Dawn, something to mope about. And it wouldn’t be pancakes.
At four, Jimmy fell asleep on the couch, Professor Pollo wedged under his arm, while Dawn watched The Brady Bunch. At five, Dawn asked if she could phone them, knowing Vera would say no. Vera said no. She said they would get here when they got here, and god only knew where they were anyway, probably out in some barroom.
It didn’t matter, though, because the beginning wouldn’t start until they arrived. A beginning couldn’t be spoiled if it hadn’t begun.
They arrived at dusk, honking noisily all the way down the street and finishing up with honkety-honk-honk-beep-beep in the driveway. Dawn followed Vera out to the front porch. Dean had driven Geraldine’s blue Beetle right up to the flower bed. He leapt out, crushing a petunia or two, and ran around to the passenger door. Geraldine stepped out. She was wearing a grass green dress with a white sash, an Indian bead necklace and white high-heeled sandals. Her legs were darkly tanned, and her long brown hair rippled to her waist. In one hand, she had a pink carnation. Dean seized her other hand and zigzagged her around in a little dance. Then he bent her back so that her hair swept the ground and one brown leg kicked the sky. She shrieked with laughter. They both straightened up and waved. “Evening, Frank and Vera,” Dean called out.
Dean called his parents by their names instead of Mom and Dad. Dawn didn’t know anyone else who did this, but asking about it caused silences to prowl and lie in wait like invisible cats with flickering eyes, so it was best to just accept that what people called their parents varied in families.
Now Dean was scratching his head. “Say, didn’t I leave a couple of kids around here somewhere?”
They ran down the steps, yelling, “Dad! Dad!” He swung them around and tried to hand them to Geraldine, but she couldn’t hold them up, and they ended up in a laughing pile on the grass. Geraldine sprang up the steps, handing the carnation to Vera and giving Frank a kiss. Frank smiled and ducked his head. Vera took the carnation as if she were just holding it for someone else.
Dean had finished loading their things into the trunk. “We’ll bring the kids for a visit soon. Say goodbye to your grandparents, kids.”
Jimmy’s “bye” turned into a wail, and Dawn would have pinched him if she’d been close enough. Vera stood stout and stern, but Frank’s voice stretched thin and tore at the end, and then he turned his head away and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his old plaid shirt. Something dreadful began to bubble up in Dawn, but then they were in the car, and Geraldine was humming “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” and by the time they reached their new house on the other side of town, the dreadful thing had drained away.
That was the real, true beginning.
Even three months later, puddles frozen and snow falling, it could still be considered the beginning. They were still settling in, which is why there was trouble over who didn’t pay the phone bill and who didn’t press the shirts and who was supposed to be home hours ago. The beginning was lasting a long time, but there were certain advantages. It was like playing an open hand to learn a new card game: mistakes didn’t count. Some beginnings took longer than others. It varied.
Then the men came with the car. They came after dark, two stick men in jeans and leather jackets, bare-headed and -handed in spite of the snow, pushing a long white car up the driveway. They were friends of Dean’s, they said, and they were having a problem with their car. The problem was the starter wouldn’t start. They had a friend who could fix it, but he was in Wawa, and in the meantime they had borrowed another car, but they needed a place to keep this one until their friend came back, and Dean, their buddy Dean, they had known Dean since they were grass high to a knee hopper (one started laughing at this and couldn’t stop, even when the other kicked him), anyway, luckily Dean said they could use his garage for a few days.
Dawn stood behind Geraldine and watched the snow falling in the upside-down V of the porch light. It looked like the light was making snow. It was an illusion, though, just like when the sky caught fire but it was only the steel plant dumping slag. The men lurked at the bottom of the steps, just out of reach of the light. They shuffled in their pointy-toed shoes and mumbled into their jacket collars. Shifty, Vera would have called them if she had seen them. Go on, get out of here, Vera would have said to Shifty and his pal Shiftless. She would have put a stop to it, right then and there. She wouldn’t have cared what foolishness Dean had told them. I don’t know you, she’d have told them. Who are you to me?
But Geraldine only said, “Well, I guess if Dean said it’s okay . . .” So they pushed the long white car into the garage, and the snow fell quickly, filling up the tire tracks and the shoe prints, muffling the sounds of cars whose starters still started. When Dean got home, there was a lot of hissing in the hallway about the car, with Geraldine asking was it something-something because that’s sure how it looked, and Dean declaring Jesus, Ger, no it was not. The snow kept falling, and within hours it was the middle of winter, even though it was only November, still the beginning. Dawn drew lemon suns, white houses with orange curtains on lime lawns, but it snowed like that until spring.
That winter Geraldine was sick and tired because of the baby, the new brother (Ryan) or sister (Amy) for Dawn and Jimmy. If Geraldine didn’t eat, she got tired. If she got tired, she became nauseated. But when she ate, she threw up. Then she had to go to bed, and they couldn’t make any noise; the TV was turned down so low they had to listen with their mouths open.
When she wasn’t sick and tired, she wove braids into Dawn’s light brown hair and unravelled them in the morning so their hair had the same ripples. She made french fries for Jimmy and sang along with the radio. She knew the words to everything, but her favourite was “(I Never Promised You) a Rose Garden.” Dawn sang this at Vera’s one Sunday, and Vera asked where on earth she had picked up that nonsense. Dawn said, “Geraldine sings it.” Vera said, “Hmph.” And then, “Well, she made her bed. Now she can lie in it.”
The truth was—and Dawn would never tell Vera this— Geraldine never made her bed. She didn’t care if Dawn or Jimmy made theirs, either. That had been the first shock, at the beginning of the beginning in the new house: all the beds were unmade, even their own beds, even though they hadn’t slept in them yet. “Oh, honey,” Geraldine said when Dawn went to tell her, “we had some guests last night and they stayed over.” Dawn could not remember seeing an unmade bed during the day that didn’t have a sick person sleeping in it, and sick meant you had a fever or you were throwing up. Even then, the blankets were arranged neatly, the bedspread folded down at the end of the bed. There was no call to pull the bed apart while you slept, Vera said. Decent people slept neat.
Seeing her slept-in bed, the blankets all twisted up and the sheets pulled off the mattress, Dawn felt the dreadful soup return to her stomach, and for a moment she wanted to cancel all the wishbones and falling stars and coins in a fountain, the exercises she’d made Jimmy practise with her. (“Let Dad marry Geraldine. Come on, say it, Jimmy. Let Dad marry Geraldine and take us to live with them.”) Then music floated up the stairs. Dawn opened the door wider to hear. At Vera and Frank’s, the radio was not allowed because of Vera’s nerves. In the kitchen, Geraldine was singing “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” Dawn made the bed and went downstairs to join her.
The new house did not have sliding glass doors, but it did have a patio and white aluminum siding, and through the park and down the street was Dawn and Jimmy’s new school. Geraldine took them to buy school clothes at a place where the sales clerks were teenagers and the music was so loud they all had to shout. Geraldine flew through the store, laying shirts and jeans and belts over counters, asking, “Do you like this? Which do you like better, the blue or the purple? The striped or the plain?” She let them wear their new clothes home from the store, and they didn’t have to put them away For Good.
Geraldine had never heard of For Good. She wore her slinky black dress with the fringe of black beads to fry hamburgers and her new shoes to help Jimmy find his GI Joe weapons in the mud at the park. She wore her mauve silk blouse to bed. “Always wear clothes you love,” she told Dawn. It was a rule.
This was news to Dawn. At Vera and Frank’s, you wore what you were given. Occasionally, most likely by accident, you might be given something you liked, but then someone at school would point out that it was the colour of puke or had seams sewn down the front and back legs. You still had to wear it, though, because Vera was not going to throw out perfectly good clothes just to follow the Fads, which were invented to take advantage of people who thought money grew on trees. There were so many other things Geraldine had never heard of, Dawn sometimes doubted she was a grown-up. “Are you going to do those down?” Dawn asked when Geraldine brought home a basket of fresh peaches. Geraldine looked blank. “You know,” Dawn said, “put them into jars.”
Geraldine was confused. “Why would we want to do that?”
“So we can eat them in the winter,” Dawn said.
Geraldine said, “If we want to eat canned peaches in the winter, we’ll buy them. In cans. In the winter.” And she grabbed two peaches and tossed one to Dawn. They ate them standing and threw the pits into the sink.
Vera and Frank bought fruit and vegetables on sale and cooked them for hours in enormous metal pots, with Dawn and Jimmy carrying warm jars of dwindled pears and blasted cauliflower down to the cellar. When the next Depression came, and mark Frank’s words, it was on its way, they would be prepared. Geraldine shrugged when Dawn told her about the Depression. She said if she wanted to keep herself up at night, she’d do it with something new and interesting, like aliens.
Made of money, Vera and Frank said when Dawn and Jimmy showed up on Sunday in stiff new jeans, fringed leather vests and purple running shoes. But of course Geraldine wasn’t made of money. She went to work in her yellow hard hat and big boots, one of the few women working in the plant part of the steel plant. She kept track of parts. She worked hard for her money, Vera grudgingly acknowledged, but then she spent it, hand over fist; she didn’t look after her pennies!
Dawn could attest to that. Geraldine hated pennies: she threw them out in fistfuls. Threw them out into the garbage can or out the car window into the street. She would end up without a pot to piss in, Vera said. She hadn’t been raised right. As far as Vera was concerned, she was no better than You Know Who, and Vera didn’t care who heard her say it.
And it was true that Geraldine didn’t know how to take their temperature, or which medicine went on impetigo. But she did know the recipe for D&J cocktails (ginger ale, orange segments and a maraschino cherry in a martini glass). She knew how to whip a scarf around a dress to make a belt, call out for pizza and make Dean laugh. He grabbed her around the waist and pulled her down into his lap and growled into her long brown hair. And she knew how to work the Finding Stick when Professor Pollo went missing. She half-closed her eyes and followed the Y-shaped stick upstairs, downstairs, through each room to where Professor Pollo had fallen behind the bed or was wrapped in a sheet in the laundry basket.
But as the snow rose in dirty hills and bluffs along the roadsides and Geraldine’s stomach got rounder, her voice got higher and sometimes she even hit them. She was turning into someone else, and Dawn tried all the magic she knew to turn her back, but nothing made any visible difference. Sometimes, she wished she could vanish her.
Dean didn’t need help in that direction. He could vanish all on his own, especially after Uncle Del (who wasn’t their uncle, only Dean’s friend) convinced him to quit his job at the radio station and work for him, and now he was always going over the river to the American Sault, even on weekends.
“What exactly are you doing for that guy?” Geraldine wanted to know.
“This and that. Keeping an eye on a few projects, scouting for business opportunities,” Dean said.
“Business opportunities, my ass,” Geraldine muttered.
Dean said, “He’s a man who makes things happen.”
“Oh yeah?” Geraldine said. “Can he make a paycheque happen?”
“If I just wanted a paycheque,” Dean said, “I’d sign on at the plant. You gotta see the big picture, Ger.”
Geraldine marched over to the fridge and grabbed a handful of envelopes. “Electricity bill. Phone bill. Returned cheque.” She tossed the envelopes one at a time at Dean, who let them fall to the floor. “There’s your big picture, mister.” Dawn’s mouth fell open: Geraldine sounded exactly like Vera.
When Vera and Frank stopped by after school or early on a Saturday morning, they always asked, “Where’s your father?” and Dawn and Jimmy were supposed to say, “He’s away on business.” They weren’t supposed to say “for Del Cherniak” because Vera couldn’t stand that Del Cherniak and Frank wouldn’t trust him as far as he could throw him. Vera and Frank came to bring them the socks or vitamins they had picked up on special. They stood in the doorway in their boots and coats, the bright, cold air swirling in past them. They were always on their way somewhere, the cemetery or the grocery store, so no, they couldn’t stay. Finally, Geraldine stopped asking them to come in. After they left, Dawn stood in the kitchen door to see what they had seen. Dishes in a sink full of cold, greasy water, a cream cake scraped clean of its icing, crushed Mountain Dew cans on the floor. That was Geraldine and Jimmy playing Dew Shot. At least from the kitchen door they couldn’t see the unmade beds and the pile of garbage swept behind the TV.
One Sunday afternoon in January, Geraldine invited them in again. She asked three times, hovering and circling, clearing her throat, but still they wouldn’t stay.
“Oh god, oh god, what am I going to do?” Geraldine cried when they left. She put her hands to her face and squeezed the sides of her head. Dawn would have laughed if she had been out of arm’s reach. Dean had been away on business for two weeks, and Geraldine had taken the phone off the hook because it was always someone looking for him. Vera and Frank had brought old issues of National Geographic and Oreos reduced to half-price because the box was a little crushed. “What good are these?” Geraldine cried, knocking the magazines onto the floor. She had only enough money for her bus fare tomorrow, and there was no dinner for the kids. And they weren’t even her kids. “Youse aren’t even my kids,” she wailed. “Oh god, what am I going to do?” She plumbed the sofa lining for change and then sent them to the store with $1.71 for milk and bread.
“Close enough,” she said. “Just pretend you lost some on the way.” But they stopped to play with Vincent down the road, the three of them flying over his backyard snow hill on his saucer sled, and when they got to the store, they didn’t have to pretend. Dawn’s pockets were empty. They went back and dug frantic holes in the snow until their hands cramped. “We need the Finding Stick,” Jimmy said, and it might have worked if Geraldine hadn’t caught them in the upstairs hallway.
She said nothing when they told her; instead, she turned and punched the wall so hard her fist went through the plaster. After that, she went to her room and the door closed with the quietest click. Jimmy couldn’t find Professor Pollo and went temporarily crazy, shuddering and crying, until Dawn found the Professor behind the kitchen door. She got Jimmy to lean over and sip water from the opposite side of the cup to take away his hiccups. Then they ate a row of Oreos each and put themselves to bed.
When Dean had come last summer to tell them he had good news, Dawn knew immediately that all her wish work had paid off. “Kids,” he yelled. “Vera, where are the kids?” They heard his voice and forgot not to pound down the stairs, making enough racket, according to Vera, to be heard all over the Two Soos. “Kids, I have some great news. You know Geraldine, right?” Of course they knew her. Dean had been going out with her for a year. “Well, how would you feel about Geraldine being your new mother?” Dawn and Jimmy began to jump up and down. “When is the wedding?” Dawn wanted to know. “Can I be the flower girl?” But Dean said he and Geraldine had already got married that morning at the courthouse.
Jimmy asked if they should call her Mom.
Dean scratched his chin. “Why don’t you just keep calling her Geraldine for now? That’s what you’re used to, right?” As soon as he could find a place, they would all move in together. Dawn immediately began to lobby for the right kind of house, and Dean clicked a make-believe pen to take notes on his hand.
Dawn thought she would float away. At last, at last: father and mother and kids living together in a normal house, instead of father living in a two-room apartment that smelled of cat pee over the Sunset Café on Queen Street and kids living with their grandparents in a weird old house with claw-footed furniture and a cellar full of pickled beets. They would go to Parents’ Night with their parents, they would go on vacations during summer vacation, they would go to the movies and then to A&W and it wouldn’t be for the birds and a damn foolish waste of money. “I think I’ve got it,” Dean said, pretending to read his notes. “Million-dollar single-storey mansion with indoor-outdoor pool . . .”
Dawn and Jimmy began to jump up and down again and hoot and holler and Dean jumped and hollered with them until Vera went upstairs with her nerves.
They waited until Dean found the house, then they waited until it was fixed up for them, then they waited for Dean and Geraldine to come and get them before lunch on the last day of August. The beginning began, and it was good at first, or at least there were moments of good, considering it was still the beginning and some things didn’t count. But by the time the snow began to melt, Dawn knew it was coming to an end. With beds unmade and clothes unwashed in smelly piles around the broken washing machine, a garbage bag of money squashed flat under the spare room bed and a stolen car in the garage, it couldn’t possibly last much longer.
From the Hardcover edition.
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