As far as Willa could tell, the road to the farm hadn't changed in twenty years. It still wound west from Norton, past the hill where she had picked blueberries every summer, and over the creek. She stared out the truck window, jerking forward as Don shifted gears. The house was gone, burned down long ago. The clothesline pole leaned drunkenly. The root cellar had caved in. The outbuildings looked ready to follow suit. The barn was a hollow-eyed shell. Fireweed, ragwort and thistles overran the gardens.
Willa, who had been unusually quiet ever since they'd left Sydney, could feel the tension in her shoulders loosening. She stretched and yawned. She had spent years ignoring the farm, when all along, there wasn't much left to ignore.
Don pulled over to the side of the road. Engine running, he rolled down the window and shimmied through until only two blue-jean-clad legs and steel-toed construction boots were visible. He was as lean and wired as Willa was plump and unhurried. "Goddamned soft and curvy," he had said on their fourth date. A die-hard fan of John Wayne's, he had taken her to the Drive-Inn to see "True Grit". "Curvy as a double-scoop." Corny as day-old chowder, Willa had thought wryly, but couldn't resist letting herself slip, effortlessly beneath his clichéd charm. She knew perfectly well that Don was a dreamer, the worst kind; impetuous, high-strung and stubborn. But he was also honest and fearless and couldn't walk by a stroller without waggling his fingers in his ears.
"This is it, chicka. It's ours. All ours." Don slid back inside the truck, grinning like a fool. Ten years after they met in the library, where Willa had been hired to bind and repair damaged books (he had been returning an overdue book his four-year-old niece had dropped behind the couch, replete with a half-eaten waffle and a couple of dust bunnies), Don hadn't changed one bit. He was still a salt and pepper, leather-skinned version of James Dean.
"Sure it's ours, all ours." Willa laughed as he pinned her into the corner of the cab, popping the buttons on her shirt. She made a half-hearted effort to shoo him away. "Temporarily. Remember what Emily said--"
"Shit. Who cares what Miss Pucker Lips says? It's ours, chicka. All ours." His head slid down her breast.
"Temporarily," Willa whispered into his hair. It smelled like peppermints and smoke. The farm might have changed in the past twenty years, but she hadn't. Willa still hated the place.
* * *
They quickly developed a routine. After scrubbing and bleaching away all the ingrained remains of chicken shit and horse manure, they slept in sleeping bags on the floor of the barn. Don would rise first and start a fire, fill the coffee pot and dig the eggs out of the cooler. In a way, it was as if they were just on another camping trip on the Cabot Trail or Kouchibouguac Park. But when Willa pulled her sweater over her nightgown and stepped outside to gaze at her surroundings, the truth hit home. She would skewer bread on a two-pronged stick and sit on an upturned log and stare at the sparks and ashes spinning towards the sky.
Willa knew everything about the farm there was to know. It was boring, simple as that. A trap. She had always had that feeling as a kid and, as she'd grown older, had had to fight the conviction that she was its prisoner and slave. If Willa had had her choice, the farm would have been the last place she would have chosen to live.
When the mine had closed last year, Don had swaggered around their walk-up apartment. He'd go to night school, make a few bucks under the table helping out his cousin Nathan who owned a contracting firm, rebuild the engine in the truck, regrout the bathroom. But by the time his pogie ran out, he'd stopped his prancing. He could no longer deny that the situation wasn't temporary. He'd doze on the Lazy Boy in front of the TV all day. Willa would come home from the Library, arms full of volumes of Better Homes and Gardens, and discover that he hadn't even bothered to start supper. She became frightened. They seemed to reverse poles. The more lethargic and laid back Don became, the more high-strung and sleepless Willa became. By the time she went home to Saint John to visit her mother, Beth, for her 80th birthday at Loch Lomond Villa, Willa's nails were raw and ragged. She'd developed a habit of jumping at sudden movements or sounds.
When her cousin, Emily, showed up, planting a lipstick butterfly on Beth's cheek and dumping a gold-wrapped box of Ganong's on her lap, Willa, for the first time, paid more attention to Emily's endless chattering than the clinking and clunking of the bracelets circling her arms from wrist to elbow.
As a top-selling realtor, Emily had always believed that they, as co-inheritors of the farm, should hire a contractor to renovate the barn into a trendy loft and put it up for sale before the bottom dropped out of the market. Willa listened to her scheme, nodding and blinking and sucking a chocolate covered cherry.
Willa drove home calculating how much money she and Don would save living rent free for six months and whether or not she could afford to drop her contract with a local antique store that auctioned rare books. Don eyed her suspiciously while she explained the plan, but by the time she was finished, he was whooping and hollering that this was payback time because they could use the profits for a down payment on a house and quit pouring rent money down the drain every month.
Willa chewed her toast every morning and watched Don poking at the fire. He would stand back and size up the barn, eyes shining. He would strut back and forth swilling his coffee, jabbing a finger in the air as he explained how he was going to leave the ceiling large and open and airy and put in a huge window overlooking the fields. He'd build flower boxes and paint them periwinkle blue; the colour of Willa's eyes.
Willa followed behind him during the day collecting debris in the wheel barrow. She would bring it outside and sort what could be burnt and what had to be hauled to the dump. But she had no desire to explore, no desire to head outside the small circle of familiarity that she and Don were forming. When Don went to Kent's to buy materials, she stayed behind. She had no need to go into town. She let him go to the corner store to get ice for the cooler. Whenever Don left in the truck she would sit on a log facing the barn, reading one of the books she had brought with her. The book, in a way, acted as a partition. It blocked out what lay beyond the parameters of Don's excitement, the sheer joy he received in being a working man, a man with hopes and dreams again.
Occasionally she would find Don watching her with a puzzled expression. He would call her to help out with a task, to hack-saw or hammer, pencil in measurements, sand support joints. But Willa, who was normally ultra-efficient, had become like one of the carpenters on the old television show "Green Acres." Like Alph and Ralph, she was all thumbs and couldn't seem to keep Don's instructions straight. He would shake his head and chuckle and shrug when she went back outside and buried her nose in her book. Willa figured that he was so caught up in his new creation that he couldn't care less what she did. Until the last week of July rolled around.
The temperature turned scorching. It was so hot that when Willa went down to the well to draw a pail of water, it was lukewarm by the time she walked up the hill. She was bathing Don's head with a wet cloth when he grabbed her wrist, eyes challenging hers. "Go into town and get me a cold beer, chicka."
"Can't," she said quickly, turning away from him.
He cursed under his breath.
She glanced calmly over her shoulder. "I'm bringing all the trash to the dump."
Don sprang off the log. "I don't know what the hell your problem is girl, but I'm getting fed up with this little game —"
"Game?" Willa's eyebrows rose. She tossed the rag into the pail. Sweat ran down her brow. She folded her arms across her chest. "Emily's coming tomorrow. Do ya think that big pile of crap is going to impress her?"
Don stared for a minute, then scooped his shirt off the floor.
"I've got to clean it up. Wheel it down to the garbage dump —"
"Bullshit," Don muttered, stomping out. Willa felt a flutter of panic growing beneath her ribs. She hated fights. She hurried after him, trying to grab the tails of his shirt.
He swung open the door of the truck, jerking back. His eyes were dark, as bottomless as the well. "Are you ashamed of me, Willa?" he demanded. "Is that it?"
The question was so unexpected, it knocked the wind out of her sails. Her hand flew to her mouth.
"'Cause I can't figure why else you won't go get me a cold brew when I've been busting my ass, sweatin' gumballs--"
"Of course I'm not ashamed of you! Whatever made you —"
"The hell you ain't!" he growled, jumping into the truck.
Long after the tires had bumped down the road, Willa stood staring. Sometimes Don was so dense she wanted to bop him one.
* * *
Even stripped down to her bra and underpants, Willa found the walk across the fields to the dump a fitting punishment. She had thrown a wet wash cloth on top of the wheelbarrow and would pause every once in a while to wipe down her skin. But it made no difference. A faint stirring of air across the field would churn the daisies and buttercups. Tall blades of grass, silky but slick, sliced her shins.
A cracking sound startled her. Backfire from the truck? Shading the sun from her eyes, Willa gazed back at the farm. But nothing stirred in the distance. Don wouldn't be back until nightfall. They had had the kind of fight that required a tavern's brand of slow-melting juke box-backed remorse. In the meantime, Willa would clean the whole pile of debris, every drop, every inch, every scrap, so that when he returned, the entrance to the barn would be as clean as a whistle.
The dump was at the south end of the property just beyond the ravine. Willa parked the wheelbarrow and scrabbled down a steep clay bank to the creek. The smell of stagnant water, slimy reeds and polliwogs hung in the air. The cracking sound, she realized, had been a beaver, slapping its tail on the water. When she was a child she would squat underneath the bridge, in the shadows, and watch the dam for signs of life below the surface of pooling liquid. But she had never actually seen a beaver, only the ripples of their tails. The forest floor was littered with their handiwork. Shorn tree trunks like chewn pencil stubs rose from the ferns and moss. Discarded limbs were scattered over pine needles and scrub.
Willa walked to the opposite side of the bridge, where the water rippled in a cold current and knelt down. The creek bit her fingers as she dipped her hands in. She splashed it onto her face, arms, chest. She felt as if she'd been slapped into alertness. She waded in up to her knees. There was still a nail protruding from one side of the wooden planks with a white, red-rimmed mug, hanging from it. Nothing ever changed on the farm. She cupped water into her hands. It tasted sweet and clean. She climbed back up the hill.
Everything would work out fine. She'd make it up to Don. She'd go into town tomorrow after Emily left. She'd visit her mother and afterwards stop at the Co-op and buy a hibachi and a couple of T-bones and a bottle of wine. They'd celebrate getting their first pay cheque. Providing Emily brought it like she promised.
You never knew for certain with Emily, Willa reflected, hoisting the handles of the wheelbarrow upwards and pushing forward once more. You just never knew.
The dump was still the dump. Almost everything in it had rusted beyond redemption. When she was a child, it had been one of her favorite haunts. She would dig through the junk and unearth treasures. She had once found a duffle bag and had used it to carry her doll around in until her mother marched down the stairs, white-lipped, and threw the bag into the oil drum where Willa's grandfather burned trash. ‘It's full of fleas and mice and God knows what else!' she'd insisted indignantly. Another one of Willa's favorite finds had been a tarnished silver teapot and sugar bowl and creamer.
Willa emptied the wheelbarrow off to the side, not wanting, for some reason, to let the new debris mix with the old. Her eyes wandered down the hill. There was an old meat grinder, rusting stove grates, a lard pail. At the bottom of the slope lay a wooden washing machine. She recalled the look on her mother's face when her father came home from Moncton and unloaded it off the truck. She had just stood there, wordless, eyes darting from him to the washer and back again. Then her eyes had filled with tears and she had run into the farm house slamming the door.
The machine had come from T. Eaton's; was the first of the line. Eaton's Playmate was scrolled across the side in black letters. Willa's grandmother, a rock-solid stocky woman, who had never been sick a day in her life, had folded her arms across her chest and sighed. No more scrubbing with the washboard in the tubs. Now every Monday she and Beth and Willa would lug water from the well, heat it on the wood stove and then pour it into the wooden washing tub. When it was full they'd add the clothes and a bar of soap cut up with a knife, close the lid and turn the handle, round and round. The clothes would churn, soft as butter, until they were clean as clean could be. They would wring the clothes, feed them through a set of rollers and turn another handle round and round until the clothes slid, multicoloured sausage links, and plopped into a tub. Then it was back to the well for fresh rinsing water and the whole process would start again. Willa always wanted a try at turning the handles, but she wasn't strong enough.
Amazing, Willa thought, imagining the long rows of washers at the Laundromat in Sydney. It was amazing that her mother and grandmother used to do all that work. And insane, that they, unlike her, never complained.
Willa, her mother and her grandmother worked from sun up to sun down. There were meals to cook, floors to scrub, row upon row of potatoes to plant, hoe, weed and harvest, and to sell at the side of the road. Willa couldn't count the number of times she'd had to put her head between her legs and breath deeply to keep from fainting in the summer heat. The men worked too, watching the sun rise, before heading to the logging camp, and late at night, after supper.
The toot of a train whistle flushed a flock of starlings out of the trees. The brush ran thick above the railway tracks. Willa's mother called it Black Bush. ‘Don't you be goin' into Black Bush, now,' she'd warn Willa. During the Depression a one-armed drifter had murdered a man for refusing to share a snared rabbit. He had slit the man's throat with a rusted tin can and then sat down, cool as you please, and eaten all the stew. Willa had always wished her mother would quit telling this story. There was something about the way she elaborated each time she told it that gave Willa goose bumps. So Willa made it a point to avoid Black Bush, and to climb the hill on the other side of the dam when she wanted to watch a train pass and count the cars. Odd number, bad luck. Even number, good luck. If the conductor waved, your wish would come true.
But now, with the sweat running down between her breasts, the shadows in the dense undergrowth looked inviting. Willa abandoned the wheelbarrow and carefully made her way down the overgrown path. The canopy overhead covered her like a cool dark womb. The air was sharp; pine and moss-scented. A squirrel skittered across a rock and up a tree. Willa paused. A train was approaching like a wild animal in a jungle. Willa started to run. She would think of Don and how she would make it up to him and count the cars. For old time's sake. Memory luck.
The train snaked past: a flash of rust-brown, silver and white. The leaves on the poplar shook like sequins on a flapper's dress. Willa stood with one hand planted on the silky trunk of a birch. But she wasn't watching the train, wasn't counting cars.
There, at the end of the path, perched on the lip of the hill overlooking the tracks, was a chair. A chair, of all things. A large wooden rocker. The rungs on one side were busted. The rockers were gone. The legs had sunk deep down until they were anchored, appeared to be growing out of the earth. The cushions had mildewed into a nest of rotting rags. Willa stared at the chair, chewing her lower lip. For the first time in her life, the farm had surprised her.
* * *
Willa's father, Vic, had been a large, burly man with dark curly hair. He was not given to volunteering his thoughts. Sometimes he would look through Willa as if she were a tree he was contemplating cutting down.
When she was small, still tiny enough to sit inside the frying pan on the kitchen floor and spin it around and around with one foot, she would get up early and sit on the wood box watching Vic shave, the careful lathering of the brush, and the way he would swish it up and put it on his face. In those days, before her mother got sick, he still had the capacity to surprise her, by unexpectedly dabbing her nose or throwing her a wink. He wore thick felt pants in the winter with suspenders and long sleeved flannel shirts over his underwear. Once when he bent over and the underwear parted, Willa saw a nest of black hair and a purple earthworm's head.
Willa liked to sit at the kitchen table every morning and eat oatmeal with her father. It was a ritual. Making a well, dropping in a wad of butter and tablespoon after tablespoon of brown sugar, and pouring on cream. Her mother never sat at the table to eat with them. She was always apart. Always separate, no matter what the occasion. Beth was busy, disciplined, stern in a way that left Willa feeling watchful, unsure. Every morning, Beth pulled the lard and flour and big china bowl out of the pantry. The smell of yeast and scalded milk would rise in the air.
Willa never saw her mother and father kiss or hold hands. But they danced together and she imagined this was the romantic ritual that they had chosen to carry over from their courtship days. They had met at a dance. When Willa's father had had a few drinks, his tongue would loosen, and he would run on and on. He played the fiddle with the Clipper Dogs and whenever they would play at the local church, Beth, he insisted, always showed up. ‘And she'd hang behind after everyone left, making like she didn't know she had no ride. Then she'd cuddle in the buggy, claiming she was cold." He would always grab Willa's mother and pull her down onto his lap but she would struggle out of his arms and get back to whatever she was doing, shooting a glance over his head at Aunt Tish, who was usually there whenever Vic was drinking and acting foolish because they were usually having a party to celebrate something or other. Willa would screw up her face trying to decipher that glance, what it meant; wishing she were older, wilder, perceptive. But then her father would pick up the fiddle and start to play "Red River Valley" and she would forget.
Once at a party when Vic was acting silly with a neighbour lady who had red curly hair and crooked black lines down the back of her legs, Willa overheard her Aunt Tish say to her mother, "You should never have come back. That time you ran up north? Shoulda just kept goin' — clear to Ottawa or Calgary or Vancouver. As far away from this slophole as you could get." Later, after Willa and Emily crawled out from underneath their hiding place in the stairwell and clambered upstairs to bed, Willa lay awake staring at the shadows on the sloped ceiling. In the distance, the rumble of the train sounded.
"She run away ‘cause she didn't wanna get married," Emily whispered.
Willa rolled away from her, eyes shut tight. But Emily wasn't deterred. She rose on one elbow, hovering over Willa. Willa could feel her warm breath tickling her ear. Willa concentrated on breathing in and out evenly.
"My mom said so. Grampy wanted her to marry your Dad 'cause he owned the farm next door and then we'd have it all but your mom didn't wanna, didn't wanna 'cause she was in love with someone else, so she run away. But then, then, she come back, 'cause she just wanted to, that's all."
Willa lay still as a mouse with measured breathing, eyes tight shut, silently chanting, Liar, Liar, Hair's on fire, Nose got caught on the telephone wire. In the distance the train whistle blew, sounding so lonely and sad that an ache rose in her heart, and refused to be wished away.
* * *
Willa told Don about the chair and it became a game, in the dark, when it was too hot to sleep and they lay fanning themselves, to speculate over who had put the chair in Black Bush and exactly what it was for.
Don had spotted an osprey circling in that vicinity. Maybe someone had put the chair there to do some bird watching. Maybe a hobo had hauled it out of the dump so that he could wait for his next ride in comfort. Or maybe someone had put it there so they could sit and star gaze at night.
Or, Don would conclude, nobody put the chair there on purpose. It ended up there, landed there by accident, as the result of a completely random act, some crazy chain of events that they would never ever be able to trace. A quirky act of fate.
"Like what?" Willa would scoff. "A plane carrying a cargo of rocking chairs flying by with a faulty cargo hatch? Or a conductor on a train had a fit one day and tossed his favourite chair out of the caboose? Or did God drop it out of the clouds to create an angel rest stop, just in case one got tired of keeping track of our crazy lives?"
"Go ahead, make fun," Don would grumble.
"I am." Willa would punch her pillow into shape. "Okay, maybe you're right."
But after he rolled over and she would hear him gently snoring, she would think, No you're not. You're wrong. Dead wrong. Somebody put that chair there on purpose. Somebody had a plan.
* * *
Willa and Emily had never really liked each other. But they felt a certain sense of duty, loyalty born out of kinship that allowed them to tolerate one another whenever they were thrust together.
When Emily came to visit, she wore overalls taken from the shelf of Uncle Ray's grocery store in Saint John West. They were blue cotton with tiny white stripes and daisy-shaped buttons. Willa wore boy's patched denim overalls, rolled up to the knees. After breakfast, they would head out to the fields. Emily would yawn and sigh. She would tug at a weed or two and then whine and cry and say her hands hurt or her new penny loafers were getting dirty and so Willa's mother would let her sit in the grass and pick wild strawberries in a cup and Willa would chew her teeth. She couldn't understand why Beth would go out of her way to accommodate Emily but wouldn't give an inch when Willa tried to bargain her way out the dirt five minutes before quitting time. And Emily was such a prissy puss. Emily didn't like playing down at the dam because once she'd been walking across a log and had fallen in the mud. And she didn't like to play on the railway tracks because "My momma says the work gangs are greasy wops. They kidnap kids and sell them to gypsies."
When Beth had to stay at the TB hospital, Willa went to stay with her Aunt Tish and Uncle Ray in their three-story in Carleton. Carpenter gothic, Aunt Tish called it. As if it were just like the houses Willa read about that were set on English moors with liveried footman and baileys. But Aunt Tish's house did have a certain prestige in the neighbourhood. When the port had been developed and the old Union Street disappeared, the house had been moved to the edge of the harbour, rolled out at high tide to a scow, and towed up river to a new location. Willa had to admit that the idea of this journey gave the house a certain air of mystery and danger, as if anything was possible. Sometimes she would lie awake at night and imagine the house reeking with a sense of restlessness, an urge to escape; the need to sail out on the open water once more.
Emily had a television and a Barbie and showed Willa how to make a soda by dropping ice cream into a glass of orange pop. It would bubble and fizz and thick foam would rise to the top. "You don't drink it," Emily would insist matter-of-factly, "you eat it with a spoon."
She would proudly bring Willa for a tour of the store, let her help stock the shelves with Quaker Oats and fill the pop cooler and ring open the cash register. But Emily fashioned her own brand of largess and after Willa had been visiting for a few days, the novelty of being the benevolent relative wore off. Emily would get bored and invent new ways to pass the time.
They would play the taste game with Emily's friends from school when no one was home. They would blindfold Willa, who was eager to play because she loved to sample exotic city fare, and give her things to taste on a wooden spoon. Willa would have to guess what they were. Emily would always start out with nice things: custard, cheese, a piece of sausage. But she would progress to sneaky things: dry mustard, black pepper, Tabasco sauce. Things that would burn Willa's tongue and make her gag and cry. Emily's friends would laugh, and Willa hated the feeling of being backed into a corner, that she deserved this torture and humiliation for some reason that she didn't understand, though it was tied to the fact that she came from the farm. This was something that they all understood. But she would never go so far as to say that she wanted to be sent home. And leave the city? Leave the streetcar, the ferry, the beach? The farm meant sitting in a field, dust up your nose, the sun beating down on your head, while the blisters from the hoe popped open on your skin and deer flies bit you behind the ears and tiny black things floated in front of your eyes. But in the house on Carleton, Willa got to sleep in and go down to the living room in her pajamas and eat breakfast watching the Friendly Giant and Captain Kangaroo. There were cartoons too, Mighty Mouse and Huckleberry Finn.
On the farm there was the old radio that broadcast a drama about a farm family living in Halifax that cut out half the time, while her mother sat sewing and you would only catch part of the story and were always left hanging in the air. Willa could never find out what happened in the end. She'd have to guess and she hated having to guess, especially when the trains went by and her mother would gaze out the window at the night sky with eyes that grew as big and shiny as the buttons in the toffee tin at her feet.
* * *
"You look good today, Mom." Willa ran a wide-toothed comb through Beth's hair. It was so thin, her scalp shone through like a cue-ball.
Beth whipped around in the wheelchair and slugged Willa in the chin. "Keep your hands to yourself," she barked. Willa bit back a retort and slipped a bobbypin behind Beth's ear. She wasn't in the mood for this today.
This isn't how it was supposed to be. In rooms beside them daughters and sons visited their parents. Laughter and chatter floated down the hall through layered smells of disinfectant, urine and funeral parlour skin. Willa's mother in her old age had grown mean. She would growl at anyone who came too close without permission and accuse everyone of stealing her things. She was forever rearranging the articles in her middle drawer, the only one she could reach from the wheelchair. She stole face cloths and toilet paper from the bathroom, bread crusts and wieners off the dirty dishes on the conveyer belt to the kitchen. She stuffed the booty in her support hose. Willa was always trying to divert Beth long enough to clean up the mess and toss mouldy underwear and mustard-stained stockings into the trash.
Willa was always short tempered after a visit with Beth, and Don would put his foot down and tell her to just stop going. But she couldn't. Willa imagined herself someday being old and decrepit, in an old folk's home, while Don was at the tavern, blowing his security cheque on a droopy-boobed black-rooted blond, and she'd accuse him of being a cold-hearted s.o.b.
Willa wiped the sweat off her upper lip and stepped back to admire her efforts. It had taken almost an hour to sponge bathe Beth, coax her into wearing the new belted shift she'd gotten for Christmas and to let Willa wash and blow-dry her hair.
Beth gazed at her, blinking. Her eyes grew round, childlike, unexpectedly filling with tears.
Willa grabbed Beth's hand, but Beth wriggled it free. "Terrific," Willa said, swallowing a sigh. "You look terrific, Mom. You're gonna knock 'em dead at the party."
"Party?" Beth echoed. She had a habit of wringing her hands in her lap. She brightened and leaned forward. "Is he coming?" she whispered conspiratorially.
Willa pinned a rhinestone broach onto the front of her mother's dress.
"Tony," Beth said. "Is Tony coming?"
"Sure, Mom, sure." Willa closed the dresser drawers, straightened the bed spread and started pushing Beth's wheelchair down the hall. Everywhere there were signs of the volunteer recognition party. Banners that read "Hug a Volunteer Today" and "Volunteers Make a Difference." "Sure and he's bringing Lady Di."
Beth's head whipped around. "Liar," she muttered.
"Gotcha." Willa smiled. Some days were worse than others.
"Over here. Willa! Over here!" Aunt Tish waved a yellow scarf in the air. She was done up to the nines in a hip-hugging polyester pant suit with matching lime-green buttons clipped to ears. "What took you so long? I had to fight off a couple of wardens," she complained. That was Aunt Tish. The person in the family without whom none of the others would survive. At least that's what Aunt Tish tried to make you believe.
Willa shrugged. "It takes a while to get Mom movin'."
Aunt Tish puffed a Craven A menthol cigarette, and fluttered about, moving chairs out of the way to make room for the wheelchair, knocking over an empty purple-stained styrofoam cup. "Technically this shin-dig is for lifers only. We weren't invited," she explained.
Aunt Tish called all the residents who lived in the old folks home attached to the senior citizen's apartment building, "lifers." She was the unofficial recreation director of her apartment building and thrived on keeping her cohorts busy with bingo, oil painting, square dancing, bowling and bridge. Willa liked her Aunt better now than she did when she lived on Carleton. After Uncle Ray died, Aunt Tish rattled around in their big old house for a couple of months waiting for someone to come and tell her what to do. One night there was a rain storm and as she ran around putting pots down in all the bedrooms that leaked, she realized that she, herself, was the one in charge. If she wanted a life, she'd have to find it. Emily was right. She should put the house up for sale. So she did. In Willa's opinion, Aunt Tish still had that "know it all" bossy air that irked her to no end, but somewhere along the line she had shed her "Carleton store owner" pretensions and softened around the edges. She had developed a proprietary interest in Beth's welfare. Who else did she have, after all?
Willa sat down and realized that it was the first time she'd sat all day.
"Where's Tony?" asked Beth.
"Gone to the bathroom." Willa glanced around the room. A large woman with doughy wads of flesh swinging from her arms was playing the piano in the corner. Two long tables flanked one wall, filled with crackers and cheese, wine and a large coffee urn. A man with a belly hanging over his belt ambled over with three styrofoam cups and napkins.
"Compliments of the house," he said, winking at Aunt Tish.
"Thanks, Bobby." She fluttered her eyelashes. He whispered something in her ear and she elbowed him in the ribs.
The wine was warm Baby Duck. Willa could feel her cheeks warming. She also hadn't had anything to eat all day. She went over to the food table and loaded a plate with goodies.
"Tony-shmoney, forget about him already," Aunt Tish was saying to Beth. "Look, here's Willa. Try a veggie and dip."
"She doesn't have her partial plate," Willa intercepted, munching broccoli. "Here, Mom, have a piece of cheese."
"That'll bind her up tight. And they only serve prune juice once in a —"
"Where's Tony?" Beth demanded.
Aunt Tish rolled her eyes. "He's gone. Don't you remember? He drowned in the outhouse." She and Willa exchanged glances. The piano player segued into "Roll out the Barrel."
"Care for a spin?" Bobby asked over Willa's shoulder.
"She'd love it," Willa nodded toward Beth. She smiled watching him gallantly wheel Beth away.
Aunt Tish watched the dancers, humming under her breath. Willa hesitated then impulsively decided to tell her about discovering the chair.
Aunt Tish pursed her lips. "Is it high-backed? Oh, about two feet wide? Big enough to fit two people?"
"I guess it might--"
"My father made that when he came from the old country. Beth and I used to sit in it when we were little."
"I don't remember it."
"Well no, right after Beth and Vic got married, Vic bought Dad a new chair. Couple of the rungs were broken on the old one by then. We put it in the garage. But Dad didn't take to the new one, complained it gave him a back ache. When Vic went to get the old one from the garage. It was gone. We figured it was stolen."
"And?" Willa leaned forward.
Aunt Tish glanced at Willa, sizing her up. "And what?"
"So who brought it down there? Hid it in the bush?"
Aunt Tish took her time lighting up a cigarette. Her fingernails were long, and curved towards her palm. "Who knows?" She shrugged, took out a compact, did her lips, blotted them on a Kleenex. "Maybe it was your father, or one of his business associates--that red-head singer that pissed off to Moncton?--or maybe it was someone playing a practical joke."
"Go to hell," Beth snarled as Bobby parked the wheelchair and put on the brakes.
He bowed low, folding one arm into his pot belly. "Same to you, I'm sure." He wriggled his fingers and trotted off.
"But...but..." Willa's voice trailed off.
Aunt Tish crossed her legs and flashed a wide smile at Beth. "God, we had fun when we were kids. Didn't we Beth? We used to go down to the railway tracks and watch the workgangs. Flirt with them, you know. Let the train rush by and lift our skirts above the knee. There were a bunch of green cards, hired to cut the grass between the ties. Cute as all get out. Your mom had a crush on one. He had an accordion. He'd play and we'd dance in the grass."
Beth blinked. Her mouth worked silently.
"What was his name?" Aunt Tish screwed up her nose. "Arto...Arto Pavillinon! The only Finlander I ever met who didn't stink like raw fish."
Willa went up to the counter and filled a plate with chips and pretzels. The air in the room felt stuffy and hot.
"Ah, hell," Aunt Tish was waving one hand dramatically in the air as Willa sat down. "Who cares? It was all so long ago. We kept our chins high. That's all that matters." She leaned forward and took Beth's hands in hers. "Isn't that right, Beth?"
Beth stared at Tish with a look of surprise. Red veins feathered her eyes. Her chin shook. Then she frowned. "Where's Tony?" she demanded, and slugged Beth in the chin.
* * *
That night Willa brought Don down to the chair and sat on his knee. "Just want to test my newest theory about why it's here," she said, sliding one hand up his thigh. The moon was full, high in the sky.
They both tumbled to the ground without missing a beat when one of the legs broke.
* * *
"Fifty tops," Emily informed Willa. "That was his final offer." She brushed shavings off a wide plank, supported by two saw horses, and perched on it gingerly, crossing her ankles.
"Fifty?" Willa frowned. All week Emily had been haggling with the buyer. Twice she had brought him out to the property to look around. Willa had found, to her surprise, that she resented the visits, took an immediate dislike to the man, resented his knocking on walls that Don had just put up "Forget it," she repeated.
"Forget it?" Emily tucked her shiny page boy behind her ears. "I don't think so."
"But it's worth way more than that." When Willa thought about how hard they had worked. Fourteen hour days: Scraping, sanding, sawing; paying attention to every tiny detail. She had gone to the dump and taken the old handles off the cupboards, the ones her grandfather had carved by hand, and painstakingly stripped them, and repaired them, and repainted them.
"It may be worth more, but in today's market, we're lucky to get that much. And frankly things are going down hill." Emily shrugged. "I can't find a buyer who will give me more."
Willa stood up. "I can." A bubble of excitement rose within her. Emily laughed and stood up with an air of finality. "Well, think about it. Talk to Don. No need to make a decision right away."
"But I can find a buyer who will offer you more," Willa said, amazed at the words coming out of her mouth. She felt giddy with the brazenness, the shock of what she was doing. "Fifty-five thousand."
Emily started walking towards the Lincoln Continental. "Yeah, right, " she said dryly. "And who would that be?"
"Don and I," Willa blurted. Don had suggested the idea one night and she had said, No, No, not in a billion years. But now she felt buoyed by something bright, and light, and inevitable that she couldn't quite fathom, but felt in her bones like an invisible tug. They had worked so hard. The barn, with its smell of fresh wood shavings and varnished pine stairs and huge windows that captured the morning sun, was worth twice, three times what Emily was willing to settle for. "We'll buy it," Willa said firmly. "Buy out your half. That's twenty-six, twenty-seven thousand. I'll go to the bank this afternoon for the downpayment. Cash in my RRSP's."
Willa was breathing hard. The sweat rolled down her back. "It was our plan right from the start," she lied. The initial euphoria, the wave of delight that rose and swelled on those rare occasions when she cast caution to the wind and acted impulsively, rolled to shore, giving way to a tiny quiver of doubt. What RRSP's? Since when had they ever saved any money? Willa's eyes met Emily's, whose dark depths emanated an open challenge, daring her to back down. Willa spoke carefully, casually, dropping each word like coins into a black pool. "We just weren't sure if we wanted to take the gamble or not." Emily tucked in her blouse, studying Willa, eyes narrowing. "You're crazy," she said, eventually, with a dismissive shake of her head. "Crazier than your mother."
* * *
"How do I look?" Don asked.
"Let me think." Willa kissed him on the cheek. October and already there was ice edging the windows. She looked forward to the wood stove coming at the end of the week. "You look like a man who is about to be hired at the dry dock."
"Shit. There's no work out there, don't we know it. But I gotta start somewheres." He tugged at his shirt collar. He had on a new shirt and cords. She helped him into his jacket and pulled the kangaroo jacket, hanging on the back of the door, over her nightgown. The kitchen smelt like freshly planed wood. The stove and fridge were rusting. The chairs and table were nicked. But they were yard sale bargains and Willa was proud of them.
She walked him to the truck, one arm tucked through his. "You know what they say."
"Pray to God but row to shore."
"You're sure you're okay, chicka?"
"Yep." She swatted his bum.
But back inside the house, as she was pulling on her sweat pants, she had to admit that she was not okay. It was a ridiculous idea. Taking out a loan, making the commitment. Maybe Emily was right. Maybe she was nuts.
Willa pulled on her jacket and boots. She shoved gloves into her pocket, and consoled herself with the thought that they weren't holding onto the property forever. They were just babysitting it until the right buyer came along. Of course, she hadn't fully explained this to Don yet. Willa moved the tea kettle to the back of the wood stove, and headed out the door.
When she was a child her grandfather would sit her on his knee, after he'd had a few beers, and tell her a story. Something out of Ripley's Believe it or Not. Willa would drain the dregs out of his beer bottles and wish he would tell her a new story. A story with a different ending.
He had been setting up rabbit snares when a train came down the tracks. He was startled when the alarm whistle sounded and the train braked to a halt. There was a bull moose on the tracks. Her grandfather was watching all the commotion, when a woman appeared at the end of the last car. A woman with brown hair, and a brown dress, and a brown shawl. She stared at him for a moment, and the stare confused him. She tossed a duffle bag onto the grass.
When the train started to pull away, Willa's grandfather scooped up the duffle bag and ran after the train, shouting and waving one arm, but the woman didn't come back. The train kept going, growing smaller and smaller, until all that was left were puffs of smoke floating high in the sky. Willa's grandfather almost keeled over when he opened the bag and found a newborn baby inside. That baby, Grandpa said, tickling Willa's belly, was Willa's mother.
Willa picked up the axe, put it into the wheelbarrow and started walking across the field towards Black Bush. The air was cold. Autumn tree branches flamed across a sky so bright, it was almost sinful. It was almost time to pick the hazel nuts and peel off their prickly shells. She could already smell them roasting.
Maybe Willa was crazy like her mother. When Willa was in Grade One her mother had run away from home, just disappeared in the middle of the night. That was before she had TB. But after two weeks, she had come back in the truck with Vic, red-eyed and rumpled looking. She had gone around the house slamming cupboard doors and rattling cutlery for a while. All the ladies at Church tsk-tsked, and said it was shame that Beth was tiched, off in the head.
Willa paused at the top of the path, fingering the axe. She knew what she had to do.
Willa was half-way down the path when she saw it. She moved slowly toward the railway tracks, pausing, mouth hanging open. She tried hard to remember to breathe.
It had changed. On the edge of the shadows, the chair gleamed. It was periwinkle blue.
Willa dropped the axe into a clump of moss. She eased herself into the chair, gingerly fingering the freshly cut rungs. It rocked gently; back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Something warm and undefinable enveloped her.
A train trundled past, chugging, chugging--silver wheels, curly white letters on rust brown cars--and rumbled off in a whoosh of inevitability that shook the grass, the leaves, the chair. But when it was a tiny dot in the distance, everything stilled and remained as it had been, Willa imagined, for years and years and years.
Except the chair.