Cindy Matthews has worked as a chamber maid, potato peeler, data entry operator, teacher, and vice-principal. She writes, paints, and instructs online courses for teachers in her studio-office in Ontario, Canada. Her fiction has appeared in Canada, South Africa, USA, UK, and Australia. ‘Nothing by Mouth’ was shortlisted in the 2014 Event Creative Non-Fiction Contest. ‘Ringo’ was awarded third in the 2015 NOWW Creative Non-Fiction Contest. Learn more at Cindy's Facebook page or @Matthec1957.
Clutched by the Hair
My face is glued to an article in the Vancouver Sun about the newly elected mayor, Sam Sullivan. It’s Saturday morning and I have time on my hands before Bart and I head out to the open air market.
“Did you know the mayor became a quadriplegic after a skiing accident?” I ask.
The telephone rings and Bart answers. “Leanne. Some neighbour of your father’s,” he mouths. I wave for him to hang up but he shrugs and wags his head. I give him a sour look and grab the receiver.
“Found your name on that list your mother used to keep by the phone,” says Mr. Wilkins, The Bastard’s neighbour.
I hadn’t been face-to-face with my father since my mother’s funeral. My sibs and I sprinkled Mom’s ashes into the soil before we planted a birch to replace the aspen that split during a storm. Seventeen years since I’d been back to Guelph.
“What is it, Mr. Wilkins?”
“Your father. You know how he loves to do that weight training down in the basement? While making his way up, he slipped. Got a concussion.”
I wanted to cheer for the nearly successful execution of The Bastard.
“Good thing Willie noticed the mail piling up and called it in.” Good old Willie.
When the phone falls silent, I’m tempted to hang up.
Mr. Wilkins’ voice deepens. “Your father, he’d want you to come. The others have already been and gone.” Ah, yes, my cooperative, naïve, passive siblings. I wonder at the kind of people they’ve become, siblings who neglect to get in touch, who leave delicate communication to neighbours.
I speak to The Bastard once or twice a year when I remember to call. He’s near about sixty. Last time we chatted he boasted about his new George Foreman grill. “Makes a steak as good as the Ponderosa.” How he liked the restaurant chain’s pre-mixed Cole slaw and potato salad with bits of chopped red pepper, sliced onion, and seasoning powder. He said, “A pail like that lasts me a week.”
“Saturdays,” he said, “I go to the Chinese buffet. Fill me a Styrofoam container with garlic ribs.” He stopped speaking so long I could detect a wheeze. “My favourite,” he said. We shared a love of those ribs. Food, a safe topic.
I thank Mr. Wilkins before hanging up. I interlace my fingers over the fold of the newspaper and consider my options.
“I should go with you,” Bart says. I lift my eyes to his face. He pushes his glasses up the bridge of his long nose. Bart’s head tilts, a familiar quirk that tells me he’s not the least bit interested in accompanying me. I can’t say I much blame him.
I think about how long seventeen years is and all that can happen in that amount of time.
Growing up on the edge of Guelph, my mother was like most women in the neighbourhood–an under-educated housewife. She repeated grade eight and then skipped most of her high school classes until she turned sixteen and quit in favour of pumping gas. She married the first guy who took her out for drinks and had the decency to shower and wear deodorant. That guy was my father.
My mother could read a recipe but generally scalded where it said simmer. She’d pop enough meat, potatoes and water into a pot before turning on a burner. Instead of paying attention, she’d lose herself in a soap opera on the 12-inch black and white TV. Meanwhile, the meat turned tough and grey.
One afternoon before my sixteenth birthday, my mother reviewed recipes in a Chatelaine she’d borrowed from the library. Creamed onions, shaved cucumbers in dill sauce, cream of broccoli soup. “I like the sounds of that cucumber salad best,” she told the empty house.
At dinner that night, The Bastard barely slid a sliver of salad past his lips before he began. “Jesus Christ, Glennis. What am I? A specimen you’ve got squirreled away in one of your precious plastic containers?” He leaned his well-sculpted arms against the edge of the table. His eyes were a sincere blue, the colour of Forget-me-nots. Around his neck hung a silver chain, a gift from his sister.
My mother gave a weak grin from her end of the table before folding one leg over the other. The thigh and calf were riddled in bruises. She huddled close to my brother, Tommy, where he mined for boogers with a pinkie. “Just try a taste is all I ever ask,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. She tucked a strand of hair behind an ear.
The Bastard looked over at his youngest whose finger was buried to the first knuckle. Tommy’s eyes had turned into half moons. The other children clicked their spoons against bowls.
“I knew this salad dressing reminded me of something. Fucking snot soup.” The Bastard flipped his plate so hard, it thudded to the floor. He got up fast, causing his chair to tip and smack the wall behind him. Dents pimpled the drywall. He tiptoed over the creamy explosion and headed for the living room. “I’ll be reading the newspaper.”
I watched him via the opening between the rooms. The Bastard clutched the Toronto Star over his head, his hands holding it with equal pressure. Auburn hair dusted his forearms. He tilted his head at an awkward angle like an extra pair of eyes crowning his head had been designated for reading. My mother pushed a finger to her lips, shhhh-ing us. The room filled with a scritch-scritch sound as The Bastard twisted the cap off a bottle he kept beside his chair. The liquid gurgled as he poured a couple fingers into a glass. Crown Royal, no ice.
Soon after, the stink of singed hair filled the kitchen. No one made a move. When the smoke alarm finally screeched, my mother yelled for a broom. She bonked the ceiling with the handle but kept missing. Tommy tumbled from the bench and rolled under the table, his snotty fingers poking from his ears like quills. The others wailed so loudly I wanted to stuff their mouths with balled-up socks.
The rusty springs of The Bastard’s recliner squawked when he exploded off the seat. He stood and watched the commotion, hands resting awkwardly on the waistband of his trousers. A cigarette dangled from his lip, my mother thrashing the smoke detector.
“Only a Fucktard could be this stupid,” he said. He tossed his cigarette butt into the stainless steel sink. He wrapped a tea-towel over the handle of the scorched pot and tossed the lot out the back door. He turned the stove dial to OFF and said, “Jesus Christ, can’t a man have some peace?” He grabbed the broom and smacked the alarm so hard its plastic housing shattered on the linoleum. He tossed the broom at my mother where it nicked her cheek. She hissed like a locomotive.
I glance up at Bart who’s picking his teeth with a plastic swizzle stick. “Just make an appearance. A couple of days,” Bart says. “If you’re still away when I have to go back to the rig, I’ll take the pooch to the kennel.”
I stall a couple more days before booking the red-eye to Ontario.
I step from the cab onto the walkway of my childhood home. The laneway and yard are much smaller than I remember. My attempts to grab my suitcase from the driver are feeble. I slip a few coins into his palm but the money tumbles to the ground. I grip the porch handrail with my left hand. I lift the right foot onto the bottom stair before placing the left beside it. Just like I rehearsed in physiotherapy. I walk like an eighty-year-old. I mop my face with a napkin I saved from the airplane. I stand at the top of the porch to catch my breath.
I ring the doorbell and am met with silence. I open the door and step in. In the dim foyer, I notice the same overcoats from when I was here for Mom’s funeral. They’re piled haphazard on the closet shelf and floor, like the hangers are too slippery. I balance by holding the wall and kick off one loafer at a time. One hits the closet door, leaving a scratch in the finish. “God-damn it,” I say. The caustic smell of kerosene fills my nose. I cough. “Dad, I’m home.”
The Bastard’s in the kitchen making a sandwich. White gauze covers his head. He’s wearing a red and green plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His pants are dark blue. The broad, stocky build I remember has vanished. He’s rail thin. There’s a speck of dried blood over his left eye and a yellow stain above an ear. “Want some?” He dangles a slice of meat. Thuringer, I think, by the smell.
The kitchen looks dingy. It smells of fried onions and burnt toast. The walls are etched with years of exposure to cigarette smoke. Cooking grime coats the lace curtains. Dead flies speckle the light fixtures.
“I ate on the plane. Thanks,” I lie. I can’t eat now. I’m an hour overdue on my meds and food messes with my body’s ability to process them.
He squirts Dijon mustard on the meat and smacks a slice of rye on top. He slices the sandwich into thirds and takes child-size nibbles. “Not supposed to have salt anymore. Once I use this stuff up, I’ll be on nothing but veggies and fruit.”
What about his beloved George Foreman grill? Sounds like issues with blood pressure. Maybe an implosion is imminent.
“You’re slimmer than I remember,” he says. This doesn’t sound like The Bastard I detest. The one from my teen years never took an interest. Never spoke without an f-bomb. I’m confused and fatigued. Like my legs are dragging cinder blocks and the soles of my feet are strapped to bocce balls. Side-effect of the medications and my diet. I’ve had to cut out red meat, protein, and beans. Unloaded twenty-six pounds in half a year. The doctors are on me to put on weight.
And I think about my final year living in this house when things turned horrid between us. How I’d have to leave or stab him dead in his sleep.
After school let out the June before my sixteenth birthday, I used my babysitting money to buy a one-way ticket on the VIA. Five days by train from Guelph to Vancouver. I decided to go as far away as money could take me. I couldn’t risk The Bastard finding me.
When I reached Vancouver, I hooked up with a bunch of young people on East Hastings. After a few days combing want-ads and writing resumes, a bunch of us headed out to celebrate our freedom. We stumbled into Polly’s Darts and Billiards. The boy had creamy curls as fluffy as milkweed down. The inside of his arms were pebbled with chartreuse scars. I didn’t want to know so I didn’t ask.
“Where’s home?” I said.
“London, couple of blocks from Kellogg’s,” he said.
I almost let on I was from southern Ontario but changed my mind.
One girl with a pile of coppery hair piled on her head reminded me of a friend from high school. Not an inch of skin without a freckle. She said, “I’m here for scratching my dad’s single, Nights in White Satin. When I touched his arm to say sorry, all I felt was the thud of me hitting a wall. I didn’t even know he’d lifted a hand.”
I shared a room at the hostel with the other girl. She was the only person I’d ever met with tattoos. She had two. Along her left arm the ink looked like a tossed salad. The other tat was on her left boob—the word baby. “Slept with my science teacher,” she said.
“Ew,” I said. “That’s fucking gross.”
“He was very hot. Besides, I’d already graduated.” She twirled a hoop earring.
I thought about my grade ten science teacher back home. He was round, smelled like brine, and had a comb-over. I hated him for holding down my hand before jabbing for my blood type.
“Guy knocked me up. Soon after, my mother threw me out.”
The girl flinched when a billiard player lifted his pool cue to line up a shot.
“Lost the baby at five and a half months. And, here I am, hoping to work at a bank like you, Leanne.”
Later, when I had my interview with the assistant manager of the bank, I lied about my age. Coral lipstick can make a world of difference.
I spent the next few years in Vancouver dating assholes. Guys who stole and pawned my stuff for dope. Guys who held my wrists over my head as they banged me. And when they finally came, they’d look at me and say, “Not much good for a whore.”
Nothing prepared me for Bart. Our first date was an accidental meeting at a murder-mystery dinner. Bart sat next to me. By the time they served the apple crisp, we were slightly drunk and super content. Bart’s over-grown beard and shaggy hair gave him a hillbilly look I found endearing.
“I’m the mur-mur-mur-murderer,” Bart whispered. His voice was raw from too many cigarettes and whiskey shots. His stutter reminded me of a grade school kid I once knew.
“No shit,” I said. “I thought I was.” I opened the murder mystery card to show Bart.
“Oops,” Bart said. “That says ‘sister’ of the murderer.”
“Can’t make out shit without my reading glasses.” I laughed so hard I snorted.
A few minutes later when we started kissing. Bart’s lips were dry and chapped but I didn’t care. The chunky lenses of his glasses steamed up.
“Let’s go somewhere,” I said.
He was in Vancouver on lay-over until shift rotation. “I’m what you call a Mud Man. I work shifts–two weeks on, one week off.”
When I looked puzzled, he explained he was a drilling fluids engineer. He pulled off his jacket and hung it over my shoulders to keep off the drizzle. We held hands all the way back to his apartment. He wooed me with facts about northern Alberta. Wall-to-wall black spruce. Mosquitoes as big as his thumb. Black bears so tame they had names. Cormorants diving into lagoons and pulling out fish the length of Bart’s arm.
“Saw a three-eyed cormorant once,” he said. I pushed the image away. Reminded me too much of a bad acid trip a few years back.
We slept together for six days straight until the rusty bed frame collapsed. I loved that Bart smelled of smoke, sweat, and mud. As the week wore on, his stammer dissipated.
“Worst when I’m tired. Pushing a week of twelve hour days against a week of nights wears me out.”
“I love you for your stutter,” I said, before taking him into my mouth.
Later Bart said, “Why don’t you stay?” He waved at the bedroom. “I’m paying tons to live here part-time.”
“What, me, a kept woman?”
“That, or come live with me and the boys on the rig.”
“And have to use an outhouse? Yeah, no.”
“Hell, beats having to shit in a foil WAG bag.”
I hit him over the head with a pillow. “Ew, I can live without ever doing that.”
I bid goodbye to my flat-mates and Bart and I eloped a few months later.
At The Bastard’s kitchen counter, I hold a bouquet of convenience store flowers. I trim the stems with a dull knife. My mother always detested a sharp blade. Feared its potential. I gaze out the kitchen window. Where there used to be forest and meadow, expensive brick homes enclose the rear of the property. Finding no vase, I fill a tall drinking glass with cold water. When I try to arrange the flowers, my right hand lilts and dances a jig. The stems collide with the Formica counter. Should have listened to Bart who tried to talk me out of taking the red-eye.
I’m close to two hours overdue on my meds. I need them to regulate the dopamine levels in my brain. I turn my back on The Bastard and fumble in my purse for my pill holder. As I struggle with the lid, out spills a rainbow of tablets. They clatter to the linoleum and nestle in dust bunnies roosting along the floorboards.
“Shit, I don’t need this,” I say, grappling with how to free the tablets and slip them between my lips.
I fold at the waist using the counter as a stabilizer. I breathe deeply before bending each knee. I whisper-count to ten as I gradually slide to the floor. When my bottom catches up with my knees, I settle amongst the fuzzy pills. I’m surprised at how the linoleum holds the cold. I feel The Bastard’s eyes on me. He pretends to nibble his sandwich but I know he’s trying to figure out my game.
I study the cellar door across the kitchen. My mother used to keep red and white geraniums on the window sill near that door. The door’s fawn-coloured paint is cracked. The double-sash windows are grimy. I have a sense of the surreal–the austerity of the room, the profusion of memories, the smells, the tension of what comes next. The round knob to the cellar door is dull and tarnished and finger prints freckle the keyhole.
There’s a closet in the basement next to the furnace room. We used to store large blue bins there, filled with that sort of junk nobody wants but refuses to part with. Footballs, roller skates, badminton rackets. It also served as a cell for unruly children. Dark and damp. Ten by four space with a metal latch on a plywood door.
Back in my early Vancouver days when Bart and I were still figuring out marriage, I had three miscarriages. The last one caused me to collapse at work and I almost bled out. After that, Bart and I gave up on family. Instead, we adopted a dog.
“Keep you from missing me when I’m on the rig.”
We named the dog Kai, Japanese for recovery.
A few years later, after Bart came home from a two-week shift, I told him I wanted more from life, to swim a marathon for charity.
“Dana’s bake sale for street kids earned six hundred dollars. I like the idea of helping people.”
“Seriously? Aren’t you a little old for that do-gooder stuff?”
“Well, the least I can do is start working out. Maybe get a swim pass to start.”
I hiked up my t-shirt and squeezed a layer of belly fat.
“We can go together when I’m home.” He held me in his arms. I rocked from my heels to my toes and wobbled a few times before catching my balance.
“I’d love that.”
“We’ll see. You know how busy my schedule gets,” Bart said. “Don’t you dare replace me with some cute guy in a Speedo.”
In Guelph, the locals swam in the quarry. The cab had passed it en route from the airport. It was said to be bottomless. The spring before I left home, a couple of kids raced around the S-Bends causing their car to spin out. It ended up in the quarry. The driver was a politician’s son. They dredged the water for weeks but their bodies never surfaced. Orange caution tape circled the perimeter. When city workers tried to remove it, the citizens marched in protest.
I don’t have the stamina for free style so I swim breast. I scheduled Tuesdays and Thursdays for swimming. It soon became a habit. The Thursday before Good Friday, I arrived a few minutes later than usual. After a few lengths, I found myself winded. I pushed myself to swim a couple more laps. I adjusted my pace and kick. My arms felt leaden, like I’d been dragging hockey bags. My face caved into the water like a marionette. When I whip-kicked, my right foot became tangled with the lane rope. I managed to dog-paddle to the end of the pool and hung there from my elbows. The other swimmers moved porpoise-like through the waves. I was tempted to leave but there was still half an hour to go. I managed to flip like a ray onto my back. The water swilling around my ears took me back to my childhood.
Evenings back home were heavy. When the house was still and the dog had finally finished gnawing his crotch, I tiptoed to bed. I took care to avoid disturbing The Bastard who was passed out from swilling four beers and six whiskeys. Every night I prayed he’d die in his rocker. In my bedroom I pulled out a Sharpie. I sprawled across my comforter and doodled a headstone on my geography Duo-tang. I added my father’s name and the date. At the bottom of the tombstone, I wrote the cause of death: Regular Ole Bastard. Jade coloured ivy grew between the cracks in the headstone.
The next morning The Bastard was once again alive and well, slumped in the cedar chair at the head of the table. A bowl of Cheerios sat in front of him. The cereal was soggy and limp because instead of eating he was shooting everyone down. “You lazy bitch,” he told my mother. “Get these A-holes something to eat before their bus comes.” A cigarette smouldered from the table’s edge, grey ash lengthening while we waited.
Five years stretched between me and the next sibling. The Bastard blamed my mother for the miscarriages. All four of my siblings cowered in his presence, remembering to keep their lips zipped and mind their manners. All except Tommy who still pissed his drawers at age seven. Me, I was different. I craved a good fight.
“You’re not wearing that.” The Bastard pointed at my floral halter-top and cut-offs. I had designed and sewn the top in fashion studies. The teacher said my needle-work showed an eye to detail. She gave it the highest grade in the class. “Glennis, tell Leanne. Our whore of a daughter can’t wear slutty shit to school.”
My mother silently unscrewed the cap from a plastic milk jug before dribbling some into Tommy’s cup.
“Leanne, don’t turn your back on me.” His face was red and sweaty. He gasped for a breath. “You’ll only get your ass kicked out of school again. Listen to me, god-damn it.”
“What are you going to do, you prick?” I said, pivoting from him. I shoved some books and the defaced Duo-tang into my canvas backpack. “See, as usual, you can’t make me do shit,” I said. The screen door slammed as I peeled from the doorway and leapt onto the porch.
The school bus huffed indigo exhaust at the end of the lane. The flashers winked red. Ours was the final stop on the dead-end.
“Get your ass back here, you prissy bitch.” Aspens postured in the gentle May breeze and paid witness to his fist crashing into my face.
I shook my head to get rid of that image, my hair swooshing in the cool pool water. Years of therapy had not managed to extinguish my hatred. A lifeguard blew a whistle. Her eyes studied me. “You okay, ma’am?” she asked. “You’ve been floating around a while.”
I squinted back. “I don’t know what else to do.”
The other lane swimmers trudged along the deck to the change rooms. My attempts at dog-paddle were rudimentary and weak.
Someone extended a rescue pole. I thrashed about but couldn’t manage to get any closer to it. I flailed until I felt the lane rope tickle my back. The female guard jumped in.
“Here. Grab on.” She extended a flutter board. I managed to grip it for a second but it was slippery and my fingers couldn’t hold it. She clasped my elbow and carried me to the edge.
“Can you pull yourself out?” she asked. Giggles drifted from somewhere.
“Don’t laugh,” I said. The frustrations of the past few minutes made me cross. When I spoke, gaps remained between the words. “Don’t remember. How. To swim. To talk.”
The female guard’s lips moved and what I heard sounded like Maw Maw. I figured I was having a stroke. I grunted when they grasped me by the armpits and heaved me onto the deck.
Someone called 9-1-1. We waited a long time. When I started to shiver, someone covered me with a grey blanket. My heart pounded against the black and yellow fabric of my suit.
“Am-I-going-to-die?” I asked.
“Try to relax,” said the guard.
High-pitched laughter flooded the deck. People crowded around. I could feel someone’s toe nails poking my leg. I could still feel.
“Ladies, we have an emergency and will likely have to cancel class.” Groans filled the air. Someone flung a water belt onto the deck. A couple of women chuffed their teeth when they breathed out.
I hated reliving those last moments at home as a teenager. Yet, relive them, I did. After The Bastard smacked my face, he clutched me by the hair. He dragged me, like an animal pelt, to the basement closet and thrust me inside. A door latch exploded as it collided with the metal clip screwed to the closet’s frame. “That’ll keep you from mouthing off in front of everyone on that god-damned bus.”
There was a loose riser near the bottom of the stairs. It would mewl with the press of someone’s foot. I suspected it might be my mother. Hovering. Silent. Undecided. Wary. A small basement window with a hairline crack and layered in spider webs offered the only source of natural light. Through the door I could barely make out someone breathing. I reflected on the kind of person who would elect to perch on stairs while her daughter filled her underwear with urine. Why she never did more.
To the regret of my therapist, I find myself in the kitchen of my childhood. A much older, broken version of The Bastard on his chair off to my right. Instead of revealing to The Bastard that my brain has let my body down, I dry-swallow the fistful of pills I’ve come to require. I don’t ask anything of him, not even to hand me a glass of water.
That night, months before my diagnosis, I sprawled like a lump on the concrete pool deck. Above me was a promising view of breasts spilling from lady’s swim wear. Two ambulance attendants wheeled in a gurney.
At the hospital, the emergency department was noisy and crowded.
“Someone-call-my-father.” Nausea washed over me with the realization I’d asked for my father. I rocked in the bed, feeling sorry for myself, disbelieving and confused. After a while, a lady doctor with dark-rimmed glasses whipped back the curtain. She asked many questions, jotted on a clipboard, and looked cross when I couldn’t do what she asked of me.
“You’re stable for now,” she said.
Soles of comfortable shoes slapped the hospital flooring. Voices bantered between me and the other emergencies. Exteroception, kinaesthesia, vestibular system, neurodegenerative, hypertonicity.
The next morning a cab took me home. As the familiar streetscape whipped by, I recalled my early days in the city all alone. The too-long rail trip from Guelph. When I stepped off the train, within seconds a tall guy with pasty-white skin approached. “Looking for a place to stay?”
I nodded and trailed him, dragging my backpack like an after-thought. The odours of my new city assaulted me: junipers, diesel, deep fried shrimp, and incense. The man dropped me off at a rooming house, bright yellow paint peeling from the front door. Before I clambered up the stairs, I flipped the man a quarter. Later that night I smoked from my first hookah. I fell in love with the cool smoke that pillowed my chest and the calm I’d spent a lifetime craving.
I don’t tell The Bastard I’ve got Parkinson’s but he knows something’s up. As he rearranges himself on his seat, there’s a squeak of a chalk-board pointer snapping. “Looks like we need to talk,” he says.
“I’m taking care of things. No worries,” I say to the floor. How do I explain my brain doesn’t work right; there’s a pill alarm on my phone; soon a nurse will shave my scalp; a surgeon plans to drill holes in my skull and stuff it with electrodes?
“You’re worse off than me,” he says coldly. He flails at his gauze-wrapped brow and chuffs his teeth on exhale. “In fact, you’re a fucking mess.”
There it is. We’re back. The whole being nice thing was a charade.
I wait for him to hurl his sandwich. To roll up a magazine and cuff my cheek. To call me a pussy. To open and slam cupboard doors. To clutch me by the hair and jerk like he’s setting a hook. I wait. The lines on his face soften and reveal something unexpected, a vase-like fragility. He pushes from the chair, shuffle-walks, and offers me his hand.