Catherine Graham's debut novel Quarry (Two Wolves Press) launches June 1, 2017. This excerpt from Quarry was published in Joyland in 2014.
Set in southern Ontario during the 1980’s, acclaimed poet Catherine Graham’s debut novel is as layered as the open-pit mine for which it is named. Only child Caitlin Maharg lives with her parents beside a water-filled limestone quarry, but her idyllic upbringing collapses when she learns her mother is dying. After a series of family secrets emerges, she must confront the past and face her uncertain future.
On June 1, please join the IFOA and Two Wolves Press for the release of Quarry which is part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series where Catherine Graham will be interviewed by radio and television journalist, Mary Lou Finlay. This event is free and all are welcome.
We watched the sunset smear red over the glistening quarry. It was the end of our first summer without her. Loops of swallows. Arcs of fish. Quiet drips of sound, the day’s wind tucked away. I thought of the story Mom had told me of the drowning woman. How she’d tied a rope to a rock to make that deadly anchor. To drown yourself in water’s depths. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the urge to disappear.
But I was doing what Dad had set me up to do for the summer—be a salesman like him. Dad sold envelopes. Big accounts with big companies like GE, Gerber, and Canadian Tire while I sold bus tours for tourists in Niagara Falls. I was making good money working for Louie, Dad’s childhood friend. No paychecks required with everything under the table. I didn’t think about it being illegal.
Just the two of us, together, watching the sunset at the end of the day.
Dad was a man who could talk to anyone anywhere. He had charisma. I didn’t have charisma. How did I talk to strangers then, day after day? Fake sincerity, that’s how. Separate truth from spiel. I didn’t tell the tourists that ticket prices were negotiable or that they had to pay extra for admissions to the main attractions: Spanish Aero Car, Skylon Tower, the Gorge. I didn’t tell them that the bus, an old green-painted school bus, wasn’t air conditioned or that the bus driver, a French Canadian with big biceps (he was always flexing them) drove at such a clipped pace you barely had time to step out and say, “Cheese!” They trusted my girl-next-door ways.
Every week I made more money. The wads of cash thick in their elastic bands.
“See, Dad?” I always said, flicking the proof. Canadian bills plus the bonus of American. “I beat yesterday’s target.”
“That a girl!” Dad said, his tanned face shining proudly.
He saw Linda during the day while I was at work. Easy to do with Linda off from teaching during the summer, and where she lived, a one-bedroom apartment outside Niagara Falls, meant she couldn’t easily drop by. We’d once been jammed together in a New York City hotel room but Dad kept us separated here. During those rare occasions when the three of us were together, his job of selling envelopes never came up.
The other night when I asked him about it—he was slapping gobs of mayo onto his late night sandwich—he said, “Like to keep my work life private. Got that?”
But dock time was our time. Our shared loss was with us then in the unspoken silence, the sun-setting glow over water, the red-driven blue.
He sighed deeply.
“What is it, Dad?” Soon I would be leaving to start my second year of university, was that it?
Then he told me his news. Talk of a new boss was looming at the envelope company, a young boss, very young. “MBA my ass. He won’t know the business. You build a business from reading a book?”
Why go to university, then? If Mom were alive, I’d say this. I’d pounce on his contradiction. But I liked the flow we were in now, these evening talks about “raking in money.” No one my age made the kind of cash I did. When I deposited those wads into my savings account, the bank teller’s eyes snapped open.
He drew on the yellow pad he’d brought down to the dock with him, a straight line, horizontal. “They start you here,” he said, “at the bottom. That’s where you start.” He leaned back for me to see, to take in the line. I nodded. “And then this.” He drew a line on top of the horizontal line, joined at the end-point like an angle in a protractor at ten degrees. He didn’t lean back this time, he drew another line. “And this.” Twenty degrees. Thirty. He kept going.
“I get it, Dad,” I said, squirming, wanting him to stop. What did these lines have to do with a new boss? Where was he going with this? I felt a tingling sensation riding up my back. I couldn’t take my eyes off his growing spray of lines.
He put the pen down between us on the dock bench.
“And like a tilt beneath your feet, you don’t even feel it. Until—” he said.
“You slide.” I watched the pen roll and clatter onto the dock.
“Desperate people do desperate things.” He was looking at the quarry now, at the growing darkness, as if he hadn’t noticed the pen’s fall.
I picked it up.
Dad rubbed the gentle roll of his hairy stomach. He checked his watch. “You don’t need a swim tonight, do you? I’m starving. We’ve got cold cuts in the fridge and Linda’s leftover potato salad.”
I nodded like Mom used to, to show she was listening. I told myself I didn’t need a swim.
The day before my departure for university to start the second year of my psychology degree, I was sitting on the dock when Dad joined me. He was holding a jewelry box.
“Here,” he said, removing the blue lid. “I want you to have it.”
I lifted the silver ID bracelet from the cotton batting and tried to clasp it round my wrist.
“Gimme that,” he said, grabbing hold of my frustration. His long fingers fumbled with the clasp but he knew what to do. “There,” he said, letting go.
I held my arm horizontally to read the insignia, the cursive letters engraved on the flat-plated silver band. Rusty, always my champion.
He watched as I tested the fit.
“Beautiful, Russ,” he said.
This time it didn’t fall off.
One of the pretty girls in residence who took over the common room daily asked me about the bracelet round my wrist. The purple chesterfields and cushions provided a canvas for her and the other long haired blonde and brunette beauties, their thin bodies like lithe rivers. The Young and the Restless. A show I pretended to like. Another silly soap opera with drawn-out silences and phony dramatic monologues. But sometimes a storyline caught my attention and drew me in—the need to uncover the next family secret.
They called me “Bambi.” They said I had a deer face. “Her eyes look like they’re stuck in headlights.” They said this as if I weren’t there. But deer don’t have blue eyes.
“She should see Bambi Meets Godzilla,” they said and giggled.
I pretended I’d seen the movie. In the original Bambi the mother dies. Maybe that was the connection. They knew I’d lost a mother. Gossip of Mom’s death on Christmas Day last year had quickly circulated. And I’d heard enough comments since my post-Christmas return to know what they thought. “Imagine coming back so soon.” They said this between gargling and toothpaste spits, unaware of my presence in the end cubicle. “If my mother died, I couldn’t.”
But that was months ago. Last year.
Now the bracelet had ignited new gossip.
“Always my champion. Oh!” they squealed in unison when I walked into the common room. I’d only told one of the girls where it came from. I hadn’t thought her over-friendliness through.
So I stopped wearing it. At least during the week. I laid it out between the cotton strips and closed the blue lid box.
I should’ve known not to wear the bracelet in front of them. I thought back to last year’s Valentine’s Day. The residence rooms had buzzed with excitement February 14th, the constant buzzing of the intercom, the messages from the residence ladies. Delivery! I’ll be right there! The giggles and squeals as the recipient raced down the hallway towards the elevators, then down the eleven flights, returning minutes later with a long white box in her slender arms.
I was stunned when the ladies buzzed my room. My mind rolled through possible suitors. Darren had been so long ago and I hardly knew any boys at university. Perhaps that cute guy who sat near me in Biology class?
The florist card in the white mini-envelope provided the answer.
I tore up the card. I didn’t want anyone to see it. But it didn’t matter, they knew anyway.
Weekends we had our routines. Friday night: Chinese food. Saturday night: dinner at Chef’s, the Italian restaurant across the border in the part of Buffalo where massive potholes punctured tires and thieves broke into parked cars. Weekends I went back to the quarry, Linda didn’t seem to exist, though she always called him. I kept expecting him to say she’s coming too before we drove across the Peace Bridge those Saturday nights. Whenever we passed a phone box, I found myself thinking of Darren.
The restaurant was famous for its secret sauce. The recipe, never written down, the ingredients kept locked inside the chef’s head. Local celebrities went there like Duddy Stein, the pock-marked newscaster on Eyewitness News. The last time we saw him stuffing his face with their signature dish, parmesan pasta, Mom was with us. Only Mom could stop Dad from trying to get his attention.
There was always a wait. And they didn’t take reservations. The mingling scents of garlic and tomato made your stomach rumble so what a relief when the hostess finally called out your surname and you waded through the maze of tables with red-checker tablecloths. Patrons always stopped to stare at Dad. His six-foot-six height commanded attention. So did his QT tan, the George Hamilton look, and his sharp casual clothes.
One night Linda did come with us. While she talked about her job, Dad the talker went quiet. Teachers were under attack for threatening to strike.
“They have no idea how demanding the job is,” she said. “All they see is summers off.” She looked at Dad.
A forced politeness oozed from his barely-there smile. It made me feel strange. I could see it on Linda’s face too, as clear as the clothes she was wearing—purple skirt and black silk blouse. She was thinking what I was thinking: He’s acting strange.
“Linda, tell Caitlin what you’re studying at school,” Dad said, changing the subject. “That class of yours, that night class.”
She told me about her recent paper on behavior modification, and we began to talk about Pavlov and his dogs. Ringing bells and salivation. Dad knew nothing about Pavlov. “Sounds like a dessert,” he said and laughed. “Which reminds me, did I tell you about the time ...”
And the conversation turned to him.
The following Saturday Dad wanted me to go grocery shopping with him. I usually did when I came back to the quarry for the weekend. He liked the company. But I didn’t feel like going so I told him I had to study. He never questioned that excuse.
The sun called through my bedroom window. I had to get out.
I walked around the quarry’s edges and remembered how the three of us used to go out walking and exploring when we first moved here. Up and down the long gravel driveway, but also into the woods. Acres and acres of land surrounded the water-filled limestone pit, dense and lush and wooded land that edged the railway line, Windmill Point Road, Thunder Bay Road, and Stonemill Road to form a grid that hid the blue oval from cars and trains and outside eyes. “You live by a quarry? Where?” people said to Mom and Dad, including locals. Our abode was a big blue secret.
During one of those walks we came across an old stone fireplace in a grove of trees. The quarrymen must have cooked their meals there. Another time we found a glass bottle heap, a cairn of bottles from the turn of the century, some broken but most intact. Blue milk of magnesia, green tonics, and dirt-caked pints of milk. We gathered some and brought them back to the house. Mom washed them with a bottle brush to get the dirt out. She set them on the windowsill in the living room between her African violets. They streamlined the incoming light like the stained glass windows in the United Church.
Things rustled behind the trees and inside the bushes. Rabbit, snake, bird and fox plus the odd escapee from the mink farm across Windmill Point Road. I’d never seen one alive before— weasel-long body and rodent face, but I knew their soft touch from Nana’s church coat.
I would never wear a fur coat.
Today the light shimmered on the quarry water like a flattened disco ball. I wasn’t wearing a jacket, the sun warmed the cool breeze. Leaves were beginning to redden at the tips but the smell of summer green was still present. Knee-high grasses shifted in the wind. They made the sound of river water as I made my way around the limestone edges into the goldenrod field that bridged the quarry from the middle of the driveway. When the river-sound stopped, that’s when I saw her. Big eyes looked back at me from a tree-still body. Triangular face. Felt nose. Long legs, lean for leaping. Her coat glowed like her rusty tail, the white surrender turned down.
I moved closer.
But the sound of gravel came, of tire track over gravel. The distant driveway flashed metallic blue. Dad’s Caddy heading home.
When I turned she was gone.
But the moment branded me like a red-coiled element.
After I told him about the deer, he closed the fridge and smiled and said, “I have something to tell you too.”
We sat down in his study. He, in his study chair. Me, on the pull-out couch.
“I woke to this light last night,” he said, looking my way but not at me. He was conjuring back the private moment. “This amazing light. It came from down the hall, the living room. Faint like a flashlight. At first. Then it grew stronger, a full-on beam. I wanted to go to it but couldn’t, my legs froze up. The weirdest thing that freezing. You’d think I’d panic, but the light kept growing and this glorious feeling rushed in. ‘Russ,’ I said. ‘That you?’ The light glowed. And when I tried to get up again, this time I could, but when I looked through the doorway, she was gone.” He was looking at me now. “Well?” he said.
I was imagining the light, the rusty glow across the peg-wood floor, pure and warm and soundless. “I believe you, Dad.”
We turned to the picture on the study wall above Mom’s cedar chest. Fire & Ice. Mom’s gift for Dad our first Christmas at the quarry.
As I stared at the image, a woman’s silhouette emerged through the flaming curves of red, upwards from the block of ice.
“You see her, don’t you,” he said, staring at the picture.
“Yes, Dad. I see her.”
Mom was no longer here to smooth any tension that spiralled between us, but her loss had become a healing catalyst. I only wished she’d witnessed this ease when she was alive. We needed her death to dispel it. Just like Dad and I both needed our bad moods to help us witness her dying. The slow deterioration we never talked about that turned from monthly to weekly to daily to hourly until her breathing stopped. The cancer inside her kept coming back. She never complained. Not like Dad and I did. Dad mad at Nana—She’s rearranged the cutlery again, goddamn it. Dad mad at me—Why doesn’t she get off the couch and do the dishes? Me mad at Dad—He’s always telling me what to do, Mom. I’m sick of it.
We were no longer at that place.
My roommate Suze didn’t like the pretty girls on our floor either. “Bitches,” she called them. “Chick sticks.” Her playful bitterness made me laugh. The kind of laughing I’d once had with my cousin Cindy, so long ago. And Suze liked having an audience. She liked to see me laughing. Yet we never became good friends. We didn’t hang out together; we had separate lives outside Brandon Hall. She, her volleyball. Me, my studies. I knew how to be on my own. What the quarry had taught me.
I was shy about dressing and undressing in front of her, self-conscious of my body. Suze wasn’t shy about her body. She walked around the room in her bra and panties while brushing her scraggly brown hair. The action always ignited any static electricity in the room, made her brown strands fly.
One morning while Suze was brushing out her blow-dried hair she raised her arm high enough and I saw the dark mound. I couldn’t help but stare at it. So that’s what happens when you stop shaving, an underarm beard. I thought back to Health class and the gym teacher’s talk of body smells and fresh feminine hygiene. How a woman must take care of herself by practising good grooming.
I thought about my first time shaving. I was sitting at the edge of the dock and Mom was smoking behind me. I soaked my legs with quarry water and lathered my calves with Ivory soap just like Mom had told me to do. Then I slid the razor through it, made pink paths. No nicks. The skin as smooth as the limestone water.
“Let’s see, honey.”
I held up my leg and set it on her lap.
“Yes,” she said, touching it, not bothered by the soapy water dripping down her bare legs. “You’ve gone deep enough.”
Our dorm window faced the quad and the ravine of Cootes Paradise sloped behind us, a trail of foot-paths that led down to parts of the Royal Botanical Garden, where ducks nested and other wildlife lived. I’d heard stories of girls getting attacked on those trails. What newspapers called “sexual assault.” What victims knew as “rape.” We’d discussed rape in Health class back in high school. The boys in a separate classroom so we’d be more comfortable “discussing our feelings.” But who could be comfortable after watching that video? When I got home from school I told Mom about it.
“It’s not always a stranger,” she said. “It could be someone you know.”
“You mean like a boyfriend?” I said. “Or a husband?”
She nodded. The end of her cigarette grew long and ashy.
“Do you know anyone that’s happened to?”
She lit another cigarette, took a long drag, and then blew the smoke out.
“Who, Mom? Do I know her?”
She wouldn’t answer me.
Walking alone on those trails wasn’t worth the risk. But I had the quarry for walking, my own private park.
I was telling Suze about the quarry. The fossils, the swimming, the nibbling-at-your-toes sunfish, the manic splashes carp made each spring when they rose to the surface to spawn. I was sick of studying for my cognition test. Suze had just returned from showering after another volleyball practice. Her team was on a winning streak, which made me think of Mom and the trophies that filled the knick-knack shelves at the quarry. Dad kept them there like he kept all her things, even her clothes.
My bed sat next to the dorm window. I liked looking outside. People below had no idea you were watching them. The penthouse floor had its advantages—a bird’s-eye view and no footsteps thumping above your head.
Across from Brandon Hall (the all-female residence) stood Woodstock (the all-male residence). You could see the long stairwell through each large corner window. Boys rarely took the stairs. But today when I looked across, inside the top stairwell I saw arms waving, the arms of two boys.
I pulled back from the window. Were they waving at me? When I peeked behind the curtain they stopped waving. When I returned to the window they started again.
“Oh my god,” I said.
“What. What is it?” Suze raced to the window. I had to move to let her in. “A jumper?” she said, looking down before she followed my eyes. “Oh,” she said. “Cool.” She waved back.
“What are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?” She lifted my limp arm. “Come on, wave!”
“No,” I said, putting my arm down.
“You can’t tell they’re cute. You can barely see them.”
“They’re pointing down. See?” Suze pointed down too. “Yes,” she said. “They want to meet us.”
“Why not? You look fine.” She was fully dressed now, jeans and tight white T-shirt. She smeared on her pearly fuchsia lipstick. “Here,” she said, throwing me the tube. “And grab your jacket. Come on, it’s about time you had some fun.”
They were already standing in the quad when we walked through the Brandon Hall doors. Strands of white toilet paper, evidence of another wild night, were laced through the trees. They fluttered in the bare branches above their heads. The boys said their names: Michael and Ernie.
I could tell Suze liked Michael from the tilt of her neck, the way she thrust it forward like an offering, but Michael kept looking at me.
“I’ve seen you before,” he said.
I smiled. He had a kind face. Round with round eyes that carried tints of green like grass from the goldenrod field. He was taller than me, tall enough to set my chin on his shoulder (we were already pressing bodies in my mind, clothed bodies, not naked). He looked familiar too. Turns out we were in the same first-year chemistry class, a lecture hall sized for three hundred.
“I knew I’d seen you before,” he said after we’d figured it out.
“I was in that class,” said Suze. “Don’t I look familiar?”
When Michael nudged Ernie, Ernie’s face flushed pink, pink as the pimples lining his forehead and the hollow curves of his cheeks.
“I’ve seen you,” said Ernie. He stared at Suze. His eyes, dark buttons.
“In that chemistry class, right?” Suze turned and tilted her neck towards him.
“No. In Woodstock.”
Suze looked away.
“You girls want to go for a walk?” asked Michael.
“Sure,” said Suze, moving beside him.
We headed around Brandon Hall and dipped under the canopy of branches that led to the footpath. Michael cut across Suze to walk beside me. My body tingled with safety as I breathed in the leafy autumn smells. They mixed with the clean soapy scent of Michael.
Suze and Ernie continued to walk behind us. They were already a world away.
The next day after classes when I arrived back at residence, one of the ladies behind front desk called me over.
“Caitlin, there’s a message for you.”
Dad? No, Dad would phone. He wouldn’t leave a message. A message meant a note. Papers tucked and folded in alphabetized cubby holes from someone who’d dropped by to see you.
The ladies watched me read the note.
I don’t know your favorite color but hope these will do. Would love to see you again.
“Well, well,” said taller desk lady. They were both grey-haired. Their skin pale and pasty. Ripe for Dad’s QT.
The shorter one handed me a long white box.
Three of the pretty girls from my floor walked through the entrance. They huddled around me. “More flowers from Daddy-O?”
I stood quiet. I couldn’t think to talk.
When they left I reread Michael’s note. There was a phone number at the bottom. After arranging the yellow roses in a glass vase, I called him.
“Thank you,” I said. “They’re beautiful.”
“I hope you like yellow.”
“I do,” I said. Maybe I would now.
“Great,” he said. “You don’t seem like a red girl.” He paused and cleared his throat. “You doing anything later tonight?”
“Thought maybe we could go for a drink. You like to drink?”
I giggled. “Do you like to drink?”
“Stupid question. Sorry. Guess I’m nervous.”
“It’s okay,” I said, staring at the roses on the shelf above my desk. I breathed in their fresh garden smell. “I really like them.”
“Did they give you that powder stuff to make them last?”
“They did,” I said. It had turned the tap water milky.
“I’m glad,” he said. “I’m glad you like them. I’ve never sent flowers before ... have you ever gotten flowers?”
He wanted to be my first.
“You,” I said.
“Cool,” said Michael.
I smiled. From the lilt of his voice I could tell he too was smiling.
Michael said he didn’t know what it was like to be an only child, he had an older brother. But with a twelve-year difference between them, he said he knew what it was like to be alone.
“He’s pretty much a stranger to me,” said Michael. “He hardly ever comes home. He lives in Montreal now.”
But Michael still had his parents and he was close to his mother. “You remind me of her,” he said, taking hold of my hand. We were walking around the campus after studying in Mills Library. Michael, with his engineering books. Me, my psychology.
“I do? How?”
“It’s hard to put into words, it’s more a feeling. Shit,” he said. “I sound like an idiot.”
“No you don’t.” I squeezed his hand. “It’s okay to have feelings and not understand them. That happens to me too.”
“Your Mom, you mean. I’m sorry, Caitlin. That must be hard.”
If Michael thought I was like his mother, was his mother like mine? I felt the sudden urge to meet her and catch a piece of the dead.
“Have you ever lost anybody you loved?” We were walking through the stone archway of Hamilton Hall, the oldest building on campus when I asked him that. The walls were riddled with ivy. The green leaves had turned red from the turning to fall and were now fading to grey from the falling dusk.
“No,” he said. “Not like that. Listen,” he said. “Let’s see a movie this weekend, a comedy or something. Something light. My treat.”
“I’d love to—”
“Great,” he said.
Through the creamy gleam of the streetlight I saw his radiant smile. I wanted to keep that smile there, but given my father and his weekend demands, I knew I had my work cut out for me.
I chewed my pen and crossed and uncrossed my legs under my desk. I couldn’t concentrate on the chart I was making. Red light pecks. Green light pecks. Food given. Food withheld. Bird course. The term we used for a class that was a piece of cake. But this bird course had a bird, a pigeon I’d christened Red. We’d all been assigned our own pigeons. We kept them in isolated cages in the basement of the Psych building. Seventy-five percent of its body weight, the magic number to maintain—hungry enough to peck at a light but not hungry enough to not peck.
“The only way to fail this course,” said Dr. Hudson, the bald-headed pigeon assigner, “is to end up with a dead bird.” He smiled as we laughed. “No casualties, please!”
Red had done what she was supposed to do—perform three clockwise turns before pecking at a green light and one counter-clockwise turn before pecking at a red light. Her little superstitious dance, the behavior she’d re-enact, brought forth the reward, the food pellet. I was tallying up the number of pellets it had taken Red to reach that place of magical thinking. I do this, I get that. But I hated working with charts—numbers and data. I kept staring at the phone.
As far as Dad knew, I was coming home this weekend. As far as Michael knew, I was spending it with him. And now I had to pee again.
After entering the end cubicle the washroom door whooshed open.
“I knew something was up. Slut. Just because she’s on the volleyball team.”
“Room service,” said the other voice. “They call her that too, Beast and the boys. I hear she’s working her way down the floors now.”
“Think Caitlin knows?”
“She’s too wrapped up with Daddy-O.”
“I hear she’s got a guy.”
“No way. Really?”
“Well, I wonder if Suze’s sucked him off too. I could ask Beast.”
Rinse and spit and whoosh they were gone.
I put my feet down.
So, my roommate was a sex maniac.
I’d heard of “Beast,” the rumoured leader of the rumoured Pigfest, the underground frosh week ritual in which guys were challenged to bring back the ugliest girl on campus to their dorm room. The guy with the ugliest—the pig—won. I thought back to the day we’d met Michael and Ernie in the quad, how Ernie had seen Suze in Woodstock. Had something happened? Had she been too drunk to remember?
Michael hadn’t taken part in Pigfest. I felt this knowing in my bones. The same way my body had felt a knowing for other things. Like the way it knew Mom had cancer before they told me she had cancer. Like the way it knew she’d die on Christmas Day. This knowing rippled inside me and said: you can trust Michael.
“Got your favorite ice cream, that hash stuff you like,” Dad said on the phone. “We’ll order Chinese Friday, see a matinee Saturday.”
My stomach prickled the way it had a moment ago when I dialled my home number. “I thought I’d stay here this weekend, Dad.”
The sound of drumming fingers on wood, an intake of breath.
“What do you mean? You’re joking, right? You can study here. I’ll let you study.”
“It’s not about studying.”
A deeper intake of breath.
“Oh, I see. A boy, is it? ” The drumming continued. No doubt his knee was jack-hammering under his desk. Finally, he spoke. “When am I going to meet him?”
“What about our plans?” Michael said, later that night. “St. Elmo’s Fire”?
“I know,” I said and slowed to his step. A gust of yellow leaves flew across the campus path. Michael kicked his way through them. “I’m sorry, Michael. Can we see it next week?”
He led me to the nearest bench, the one closest to Brandon Hall.
“Let me give you a ride, then,” he said, sitting beside me. “I could meet your Dad. See the quarry.”
The next day Michael came by for me in a pick-up truck that once belonged to his father, and we headed down the QEW.
“I want to hear what your dad’s like,” I said.
“He likes to talk. He’s always talking, always turning the conversation towards him. Me, me, me.” Michael hit the steering wheel to the beat of each “me” as if drumming a pop song. The interior reeked of cigar smoke even with the windows half open. I was glad Michael didn’t smoke cigars like his father. “Once he made me so mad I went to my room and put a sticker on the bottom of my door. The kind you find in a cereal box for assembling a game or something. A lightning bolt.”
“That’s it. That’s what I did. So I’d remember how mad he made me. How about your dad? What’s he like?”
“He’s a talker.”
“He sounds intense. What’s he do—”
“Michael. Look at those trees.”
The Niagara Escarpment was clothed in fall colors. They made me think of our kitchen carpet back at the quarry. It was then that I realized we were driving through a massive quarry, a pit carved by glacier’s hands. No dynamite required here to cut stone. No underground springs to seep back up, just fertile earth for growing peaches and cherries and grapes. Fruitbelt. We passed the exit for Grimsby.
Hard to believe I ever lived there. Maybe Michael was right to mark his anger with a sticker. A mark that signalled: I feel. But only Michael would know the meaning behind it. Otherwise it was a mute lightning bolt with no story to tell.
“What did he do, Michael?”
“Sold life insurance. Still does.”
“No, I mean what did he do to make you so angry?”
We were past the fields of fruit trees now. I turned down the radio before repeating my question.
“What did he do?”
“It’s okay, Caitlin. I heard you the first time.” He gripped the wheel with both hands.
“Not to worry,” I said lightly. “It doesn’t matter.” Perhaps it was better I didn’t know. I was about to turn the radio back up when Michael nudged me from touching the volume.
“I don’t remember, okay?” he said. “But that’s not the point. The point is I needed to remember the feeling.”
I thought of the empty jar of red jam I’d kept from our trip to New York City. It was tucked in the back of my dorm-room dresser. Me, Dad, and Linda, all in the same room. That first night, after having that horrible nightmare, I went into the bathroom and licked all the jam jar’s contents with my finger—Mom in a coffin, her flesh decaying body full of pus and boils and dark-caked blood, her bony hand beckoning me to come closer.
“Oh,” I said, nodding.
The wind came through like a voice gone quiet. It travelled the interior and wrapped us as one.
“You sure you’re okay with this? Driving me there and then driving back. It’s a long drive.”
Michael checked the clock on the dashboard. “We’re making good time. No traffic. Drive back’ll be quicker.”
“Yes,” I said, knowing he’d slowed down for me. I didn’t mind passing transport trucks, but I wasn’t one for speed.
“Wow,” he said. “Look at that.”
The sun hovered over a low-lying cornfield, a big fist of blood.
“I wish you could’ve met her,” I said, my eyes fixed on the red.
“I know. But I am meeting her, right? She’s part of you.” He put his hand on my thigh and left it there. The steady hush of tire over tarmac.
When Michael steered the truck around the bend of our long gravel driveway, he got his first view of the quarry. “Wow. It’s a lake. You really are in the middle of nowhere.” He stopped on impulse and we stepped out of the truck. “You swam across that?” he said, taking hold of my hand.
“Around it too.”
“Looks cold,” he said as we walked towards it. Waves but no whitecaps. I could see Dad’s new Eldorado parked in the carport beside Mom’s old Malibu, but the line of tall cottonwoods would prevent him from seeing us. When I looked to the sky I saw movement.
“The osprey,” I said. “He’s back.”
The bird of prey circled the quarry and stilled. Down he came, feet first. He hit the water hard with a forceful splash and his body went under until he flapped back up through the white water spray. The fish twisted in his grip, the beak-like talons, but the osprey held on.
“Jesus, you don’t see that every day,” Michael said, stepping over a grapevine to get a closer look. “I think he’s got a smallmouth.”
After Michael parked the car in the carport, Nana’s old space, we walked down the path to the side door. Words of introduction swam through my head: Dad, this is my boyfriend Michael. No, not right. Dad, I’d like you to meet a special friend of mine. No, not right either. I was still debating what to say when I turned the knob of the unlocked door and we strode in.
There in the middle of the kitchen stood my startled father in baggy blue boxers and white cotton socks.
“Oh, goddamn,” he said.
Michael put out his hand like it was the thing to do, the only thing one could do when confronted with your girlfriend’s father, red-faced, half-naked.
“Hello, Don,” said Michael, shaking my father’s hand.
He cringed at the sound of his first name. “I’m getting changed,” he said, letting go of the handshake. He turned to the doorway that led towards the master bedroom.
I led Michael through the other doorway, into the family room. I didn’t want him to see the butt of Dad’s underwear; god knows there might be skid marks. We looked out the window, at what we could see, given daylight was leaving. We eyed each other and smiled but didn’t break into laughter. We knew Dad would hear us. He’d turned the radio off.
“Sit,” Dad said when he came back in. He was tying the string of his cotton track pants.
“I’ll stand,” Michael said, rubbing his back. “Long trip.”
But Dad didn’t sit. He wasn’t about to look up at the new man in my life, a man who dared to call him “Don” not “Mr. Maharg.” He remained standing.
“I hear you’re an engineer.”
“Will be in a couple of years, if all goes well.” Michael wriggled his right pinkie finger. “I’ll have an iron ring.”
“You know how to work with your hands?” He looked at Michael’s hands as if they had the answer.
“Yeah, I know how to work with my hands.”
“Good,” Dad said, cocking his head. “You can help me trim that bugger of a hedge.”
“Dad,” I said. “It’s getting dark out. Michael has to drive back to Hamilton.”
Dad looked out the window. “Plenty of light out there.”
I looked at Michael who was looking at my father. Their eyes like wrestling hands. I could feel their palms pressing in.
“Plenty of light,” said Michael, eyeing the hedge.
Moments later I was shouting over the loud chirring of the electric hedge trimmer. “If this isn’t dark, I don’t know what is!” They were taking turns holding the ladder, climbing up the rungs, climbing back down. They were in their own battle now. The prize—me—pointless. It got maddening standing there in the cold dark, so I went back inside and took the Heavenly Hash out of the freezer. Setting the container on top of the tea towel I’d spread over my lap, I spooned cold-numbing mounds into my mouth.
Something inside me said stop. I fastened the lid before the spoon hit rock bottom. The rim’s click gave a pleasing sound like the snap of a hole closing in. I wanted my insides to do that—snap to a shut my ears could hear. But the shutting inside me was faint like an echo.
I was cradling the container when I realized what I was touching. Condensation made the Special sticker easy to remove. It lifted off in one piece. The orange shone brightly against my index finger and the black letters popped.
I shoved the ice cream back in the freezer and walked down the hall to my bedroom. My finger glowed like an orange sucker. I knelt beside my bedroom door and peeled the Special off me and placed it on the bottom of the door.