Joyland

Toronto |

Backbreak

by Michelle Berry

edited by Emily Schultz

She was bending down, red robe held tight, reaching for the newspaper, when it happened. The paper, wrapped in a pinkish plastic bag slightly damp from the morning rain, tossed on her porch every day by Charlie who lives across the street and who couldn't throw straight to save his life, fell from the untied bag and landed in a puddle. And right before it happened she was thinking to herself, today is the day. She was thinking, today is the day and she was bending towards the paper and then her dog bolted out of the house and she bent just a bit further to try and reach for his collar and then it happened and she thought, today isn't the day. And she thought, damn it. She thought, why does everything always happen to me? She laughed a little, her barkish laugh. One quick, painful one. She tried to call out for her dog but he was long gone. Some of this is what Maria tells Tom when he comes home from work. “I was bending. Just bending down.” “Uh huh.” Tom has his head buried in the refrigerator. Maria can only see his long legs, clad in khaki. His brown shoes which he forgot to take off at the door. From her position she can see the tracks he has made, fine particles of dirt. “Don't we have any beer? Did you drink the last beer?” “I bent over, the paper fell, and here I am.” “Here you are,” Tom says. He finds the beer at the back of the refrigerator, behind the pickles and the sour cream – sour cream that is, Tom thinks, definitely more than sour now, how long has it been in here? – he twists open the beer and takes a deep swallow. He turns to look down at his wife. Maria is lying on the kitchen floor. “There are bits of food down here, Tom,” she says. “You wouldn't even believe it unless you were lying here. I thought I was so clean, but there is food everywhere. Crumbs. And hair. And dust. Mostly crumbs. I've been picking it up all day but I have nowhere to put it so I drop it again.” “Don't let Becky lie on the floor then.” Tom smiles. Maria smiles. “Have you taken anything?” “Robaxacet,” Maria says. “In fact, truth be told—” “Truth be told?” Tom laughs. “I'm a little high on it.” Maria giggles, slightly. “Hence lying on the floor?” “Hence?” Another giggle. Tom takes the newspaper from the counter top and tries to open it. The pages have stuck together. Everything looks melted. Sports, News, Life, Arts and Entertainment, Wheels section. All combined into one big gluey mess. Dry, though. It has been sitting here all day. Whole sections of the world crammed together. “I'm cold,” Maria says. “I've been in this robe all day. I haven't been able to move.” “You should have called me.” “What could you have done?” Tom shrugs. He glances down at Maria, in her red robe, the belt cinched tight around her tiny waist, and he says, “Where's Becky?” “Rachel's.” Maria nods in the general direction of the phone. “She left a message on the answering machine. I guess she thought I wasn't home from work yet so she went to Rachel's after school.” “Ah.” Tom settles behind the counter on the stool with his beer and his newspaper. “No dinner then, I guess?” Maria sighs. “Not unless you make it.” She stares up at the ceiling. She now fully understands the saying, “stiff as a board.” She is cold. She is high on muscle relaxers. She wants to fall asleep. “Where's the dog?” Tom says. He looks up. Looks around.   Becky cries, “I can't believe you lost the dog.” She hasn't stopped dramatically crying since she came home from Rachel's. The sun has almost set. Maria is still on the floor. Tom has ordered pizza and they have eaten it sitting down with Maria on the floor, handing her slices one at a time. She has a straw for her milk. “I really have to pee,” Maria says. “I managed to pee at lunchtime, but I had to pull myself there.” “Well,” Tom says. What else should he say? He isn't sure. “That's good.” “Mom, what about the dog?” Maria thinks they really should have named the dog. They call him “The Dog” or “Doggie” or “Dogster.” They talk about The Dog. They couldn't agree on a name. He is old now, ten, and he's never had a name. They thought it was cute for awhile not to name him. But now it only makes Maria sad. “After we eat we'll go out and look for him,” Tom says through a mouthful. Maria has an idea in the fog of the pain killers. “Maybe he's in the back yard. Maybe he came back and is outside waiting for us to let him in?” Becky walks to the back door, opens it and yells, “Dog” out into the evening. “Where are you, Dog?”   Maria doesn't tell them about Rebecca. She doesn't tell them how Rebecca saw her from across the street, saw Maria, her robe open, her body hanging out there for all to see, almost falling, stiffening up and leaning forward, she doesn't tell them how Rebecca came across the street quickly and steadied Maria before she fell. She dragged Maria into the kitchen, stretched her out on the kitchen floor, straightened her robe and tied it tight around her waist. She said, “I have to get Carrie. Just a minute. I'll be right back,” and she ran off out the front door and across the street and found her young daughter somewhere in her house and then came back. When she came back she was carrying the baby on her hip and she had her purse over one shoulder. The baby was fiddling with the strap. “Oh dear,” Maria said, “I haven't even introduced myself to you and here you see me half naked lying on my kitchen floor.” “Rebecca,” Rebecca said. “And this is Carrie.” “That's my daughter's name but she goes by Becky. I'm Maria.” The women nodded at each other. Maria nodded at Carrie. She swore the baby nodded back. Everyone was calm and quiet. Everything was silent. There was nothing odd about this at all.   Tom helps Maria get comfortable. He brings in blankets and pillows. About time, she thinks. He's been home from work for over an hour. He plumps the pillow and tries to roll some blankets under her – the tile floor is cold – but it hurts too much and so he just lies them over her and tucks her in a bit. He gives her another Robaxacet and some water with a straw. Becky is pacing beside her mother. “Don't step on me,” Maria says lightly, as if it's a joke, but she really means it. Becky is getting close, back and forth back and forth, her tread heavy. “Hurry up, Dad.” “You'd think, Becky, that you actually liked Dog,” Maria says. Tom glances at her. “I mean you're always complaining about him shedding.” “I love our dog,” Becky shouts. “You let him go and you didn't do anything about it.” “I didn't let him go on purpose.” “But you could have phoned Dad. You could have phoned him at work and he could have come home and looked for the dog.” “That's true,” Tom says. “She has a point. Why didn't you call me?” Maria sighs. “I'm stuck here,” she says. “But you got to the bathroom.” “That was an emergency.” “And the dog isn't?” Becky is crying now. “Teenagers,” Maria says and Tom looks at her but quickly looks away. “What? I'm the one who's hurt here.” “We'll find him, Beck. Don't you worry.” Becky puts her coat on, stamps awfully close to her mother, and heads out the door behind her father. Maria can hear them calling “Dog” up and down the street. Another reason they should have named him. How will he know that he's “The Dog” they want? She isn't certain why she didn't think to call Tom. Well, she is certain, actually. She didn't call Tom because she had forgotten that the dog got out. Rebecca distracted her and, for the day, Maria actually forgot she had a dog. Because he doesn't have a name, Maria thinks now, he doesn't really exist. “For God's sake, try harder,” Maria tells herself. But it comes out, “Fer Gut sake, dry hearter,” because the Robaxacet is starting to work.   She moved from California recently, which made Maria both envious and sad. There was a complicated husband, a bitter divorce. Little Carrie has no father anymore. Something about moving here to get away from it all. Rebecca was now playing hockey in that league that Trish organizes and this made Maria even more envious and sad. Trish never asked her to play and they've known each other for years. Maria was not quite sure why she hadn't been asked. Supposedly Rachel babysits for Rebecca which really made Maria envious and sad. Becky and Rachel are the same age but Becky is much more mature. The thought of Rachel babysitting anyone's child made Maria uncomfortable – more uncomfortable than she already was, lying on the floor in her red bathrobe. “But don't you think she's too young?” Maria asked. “I'm just down the street at the arena,” Rebecca said. “She can always call me.” “Do you carry your cell phone when you play hockey?” Rebecca looked at Carrie, looked at Maria and said, “No. I guess I don't. But Carrie is asleep when I play hockey. I didn't really think—” “Well, it's none of my business, but that Rachel girl can be a real hand full.” “I think she's lovely,” Rebecca said, “but I don't really know her like you do.” “Oh, I could tell you. She plays with Becky and she's quite bossy, quite controlling. She does things sometimes that make me so mad.” Maria stopped talking and blushed. She realized that she sounded shrill. It was just that Rachel and her mother, Trish, well, it was just— Rebecca was sitting on the floor near Maria. She leaned her back against the wall. Carrie was sitting on her lap looking at Maria, sucking her thumb, her baby fist pressed hard against her nose. She was a cute baby, Maria thought at the time. A sweet looking thing. “How well do we really know anyone?” Maria sighed. And that's when Rebecca started to cry. It shocked Maria at first. Here she was, lying on her kitchen floor in her bathrobe with someone she just met and the woman was crying. Carrie took her finger out of her mouth and screwed up her face to cry. But then, just as quickly, she plugged her finger back in and stopped. “I'm sorry,” Rebecca sniffled. “It's just—” “Oh, I completely understand,” Maria said. But she didn't. She had no idea why this woman was crying in her kitchen. Maria thought, I should be crying. I'm hurt. “It's just.” “Yes, yes, yes. No problem at all.” This went on for a bit. And then Rebecca wiped her eyes, blew her nose, and got Maria a Robaxacet from the bathroom cabinet.   Now Maria tries to roll over. The dark has completely set in. Tom and Becky have been gone for about an hour. Maria heard their voices carry down the street and disappear. She heard them come back for the car, and then drive off again. “Dog, Dog, Dog....” The kitchen tiles are filthy. Hair everywhere. Is that an olive slice from the pizza under the dishwasher? So many things, Maria thinks, sluggishly, to worry about. A frozen woman alone on her kitchen floor. A dog with no name lost out in the dark of night. A stranger crying in your kitchen. This is when Maria realizes that she never called in to work. She missed a whole day of work and she didn't call in and they didn't call her. No one called. All day. Except Becky, when she was at Rachel's after school. Didn't they wonder where she was? Didn't anyone worry about her? Or miss her? There was supposed to be a meeting today, Maria remembers. About the new insurance policy her company is thinking of getting. Better drug plan. Better dental. Maria wasn't there and no one noticed. Maria starts to get teary just thinking of it. She would have liked to have given her input. She would have liked to have said something about orthodontists and pain killers. On the news the other night there was a story about a woman who had died at her desk in her cubicle at work – a heart attack. She had died on Friday and they hadn't discovered her until Saturday afternoon. For an entire day the woman slumped dead over her desk and no one noticed. It makes Maria wonder why she even has a job. Well, money. Of course. That's why. She sometimes enjoys what she does. But it's definitely impossible to live off one income these days. Two incomes barely make ends meet. “We're home.” Tom is standing at the back door. Becky looks defeated. “No luck.” “He'll come back,” Maria says. “I'm sure of it, Beck.” But she isn't sure. In fact, she's sure he's gone for good. Dog. Out in the real world. On an adventure. “I can't believe you, Mom,” Becky says. “I can't believe you lost our dog.” She kicks past Maria and heads up the stairs to her room, stomping all the way. Her door slams and then Maria and Tom hear her Dust Buster start up. Becky cleaning. Maria still can't get used to it. When she was young she was so messy. Yet she somehow raised a daughter who is obsessed with cleanliness. This is part of the reason why Maria thought Becky wouldn't mind that the dog was gone. He is, after all, loaded with dirt and hair and dead skin. He sheds everywhere. “Poor Beck,” Tom says. He runs his hand through his hair. “I bet he will come back, though. Dogs do that, don't they?” Then he turns on the TV and settles in to watch something. After about half an hour he says, “can I get you anything?” Tom turns the volume up on the TV so he can hear over the Dust Buster. Maria lies there, waiting.   Late at night was the worst, Rebecca told Maria. When the dark settled in and Carrie was asleep. When the trees outside scraped against the windowpanes. “That's when I'm afraid,” Rebecca said, “that he'll come for me.” Trapped there, on her kitchen floor, an imprisoned woman, Maria could only blink in response. What more could she have said to the story Rebecca was telling her? A horror story that couldn't really be true because nothing like that could happen in this neighbourhood? Right, Maria thought? Right? “Does he happen to have a scar on his face,” Maria said. “A big one running right down the middle.” Maria shivered as she remembered that man who helped Tom rake. That man who never came back for his money. He raked all day and then he left and they've never seen him again. Rebecca shook her head. “That's the problem,” she said. “He is too perfect, too good looking.” “That's a problem?” Maria tried to laugh. A bark. “Beauty isn't a problem, is it?” “When he fucks everyone it is. Everything. Everyone. Anyone. Anything.” Rebecca began to cry again. Carrie joined her this time. And then Carrie found her thumb and became silent. “Oh dear,” Maria said. “Not anything.” Maria didn't like this story. Not when it was being told to her and not after. In the late afternoon, as she lay on her kitchen floor alone, after Rebecca had gone home, she felt as if someone were sitting on her chest. She felt sick and scared and angry. Creeping marauders, child-stealers, scar-faces in her own neighbourhood. She wondered if Trish knew about this. Maria would never, when she thought about it, let Becky babysit for Rebecca. Not for a second. Rebecca and her past life. Her history. Her California life. That poor girl, Rachel, sitting over there in the dark on hockey nights while Rebecca skated away.   This has happened before, this back problem. Maria thinks she has a weak spine. Once every couple of years she has to lie still for four days, take muscle relaxers and stay completely still, and then, after those four days she will get up and the pain will be gone. A miracle. Three days doesn't work. She isn't sure about five days, as she's never tried it, but four days is the cure. Tonight Maria lies alone on the kitchen floor. Tomorrow Tom will carry her up to their bedroom and she will lie there. Tonight she decides to lie on the kitchen floor, not move, until morning. Tom carries her into the bathroom, helps her in there and then makes up the kitchen floor with an exercise mat, a pillow, quilts and blankets. He places the phone and a flashlight beside the mat and settles Maria in for the night. He then kisses her forehead and climbs the stairs to their room in order to stretch his long frame out on the empty Queen size bed and fall into oblivion. Tom works hard, Maria thinks, lying there. She appreciates that. Alone on the kitchen floor, the house dark and creaking around her, Maria begins to worry about Dog. She hears rain hit the windows and she imagines him out there in the blackness, under a bush. She imagines him hungry and sad and confused and wet. She begins to cry.   Maria didn't know why Rebecca told her that story. Maybe it was because she was trapped on the kitchen floor. She couldn't run from it. She had to hear Rebecca through to the end. The husband who threatened so violently. The husband who forced Rebecca to kidnap her own child. The husband who used his own child as a weapon and a pawn. And the worst was, Rebecca said, legally he could come and take his weapon back. If he only knew where they were living. Rebecca thought it was only a matter of time before he came and took Carrie away. “All he has to do is get dumped by one of his women and he'll suddenly think about me and about revenge.” Rebecca's eyes were vacant, empty, glazed. Maria wondered if her new neighbour was on drugs. “You can't tell anyone this,” Rebecca said. “But he's Carrie's father,” Maria said. As if that made all the difference. Burned her – he said it was an accident. Cut her – he said she caught her hand on his glass coffee table. Left her alone – he said it was only eight hours. “How is it possible?” Maria said. Rebecca shrugged. “She's his daughter. Right? His daughter.” Rebecca stared at the floor tiles and that was when Maria noticed all the dirt and hair, that's when she noticed the crumbs and how many crumbs there were, there, on her kitchen floor. What was Rebecca was seeing on the floor? Maria wasn't sure.   The noise wakes her. She was dreaming about a handsome man. She's not sure what was happening in her dream, but she sees his face in front of her still. Really handsome. The noise again. A scratching over there, by the kitchen window. An outside noise or an inside noise? Maria isn't sure. She lies there waiting for it to happen again. Listening hard. Nothing. And then again. There it is. Scritch-scratching. Like a mouse. Oh, God, a mouse. No. Maria listens. It's outside. At the back door, not the window. Dog? Why, Maria wonders, did Tom give her the phone? It's not as if she can phone him on the same line in the bedroom? Why didn't he give her the walkie-talkies they got for the ski hill so Becky could go off with her friends and they could call her into the lodge for lunch? The phone? Maria picks the phone up and looks at it. She drops it beside her. The scratching continues. Oh, Dog. It's a matter of will power. A matter of mind over matter, actually. What's the matter? Maria will try to pull herself across to the back door. She will try to open the door and let Dog in. She can do it. Or she can call loudly for Tom or Becky. “Tom.” “Becky?” “Tom.” “Toooommmmmmmm.” Nothing. The house is too spread out. The kitchen isn't below anything but the upstairs office. Tom, a deep sleeper, and Becky at the front of the house, both too far away to hear. Scratch. Maria uses her legs to slide herself across the tiles. Good thing her bathrobe is so thick, it cushions the ride. She propels herself with her legs. Moving her arms is not an option. When she moves her arms her back breaks. The tiles are okay, she gets across them rather rapidly, faster than she thought she would, it's when she hits the carpet in the TV room off the kitchen that the problem arises. She gets stuck on the carpet and finds it difficult to slide anywhere. Her red robe, thick and piled, is like Velcro on the carpet. Maria wonders if Dog will stay there. She wonders if he'll be there in the morning, but she doesn't want to take that chance. Does she? She rests a bit, thinking about it. Scratch. And then a knock. A knock? Can dogs knock on doors? Perhaps she just imagined it. Another scratch. Yes, it was a scratch, not a knock.   Rebecca said one more thing before she left. Rebecca said, as she balanced Carrie on her slender hip, as she looked down at Maria on the floor, her long hair framing her face, she said, “I keep thinking I see him in the neighbourhood. I keep thinking that he's been creeping around the house, looking in our windows, waiting. That's crazy, right?” “Waiting for what?” Maria said. “Waiting for us, of course.” Rebecca flicked her hair over her shoulder and left. She called out, “I'll lock the front door on my way out,” and Maria heard her walk across the front porch and disappear. All Maria could think about, after Rebecca left, was: if she's so worried that her ex-husband is stalking her, why does she leave her baby with a babysitter and go out to play hockey? Huh? Does that make sense to you, Maria asked herself. Maria thought, that long, cold, sore afternoon by herself on the floor, that maybe some women got what they deserved. Not in any self-righteous way, of course, Maria thought, she wasn't trying to be self-congratulatory and she certainly didn't want Rebecca or Carrie to come to harm, but really, some mothers just don't know how to have a good relationship or how to raise their kids.   The scratching is getting more insistent. Poor Dog, Maria thinks. Out there in the cold and wet and dark. Poor, poor old Dog. She does the only thing she can think of doing. Maria slides out of her red bathrobe, leaves it behind, and slithers and pushes herself across the carpet, completely naked, towards the back door, towards Dog and his pitiful scratching. All day she's been in that bathrobe – she was, after all, getting ready to go to work when she bent to pick up the paper. All day she's been cold and now here she is, naked and really really cold and sliding towards the dog at the back door in the dark. Becky will be so happy when she wakes up and sees Dog lying beside her mother on the kitchen floor, keeping her mother warm. When she gets to the door the scratching stops. Maria listens and then she props herself up as high as she can get, groaning wildly as the pain shoots into her back and hips and arms, a stiffening, cracking, breaking pain, and she manages to click open the lock. She collapses back before she can turn the knob on the door. Just breathe, she tells herself. Breathe. She closes her eyes. But the pain is unbearable. Maria sees spots. Red spots, white spots. And a cold breeze rushes in and covers her already chilled body, a cold breeze shoots across her breasts and hips and legs and arms, her face feels as if it has been dipped in the freezer. Maria cries out. And opens her eyes. He is standing there. A really handsome man. Standing in the open back door, just over her, looking down at her naked, cold, broken body. He smiles. “Wrong house,” he says. Maria screams.   Maria had said to Rebecca, before Rebecca started to tell her about the ex-husband, “I couldn't play hockey anyway, even if Trish had asked me, even if I had wanted to. I really didn't want to. Hockey isn't my thing. But, seriously, can you imagine me playing hockey? Not with this back.” Maria had laughed. “You'd have to slide me off the ice, wouldn't you?” And, instead of saying something like, oh, we could really use you on the team, or, I'm sure Trish would love to have an extra player, something like that, Rebecca had just looked at Maria with a curious expression on her face. She looked at her long and hard, judging almost, and then said, “I guess you're right.” Those four words. That's what did it. That's what made Maria mad.