Androgynous oddball Karl Jones has spent the past year watching her father die at home in small town Ontario. She’s about to sell the house and move to the big city to start life afresh when Jean, her estranged mother, starts leaving messages on her answering machine. Jean reveals there is a will and as sole inheritor she intends to take the house from under Karl’s feet. Thus begins what Karl calls ‘round two of Jean screwing up my life’. Feeling older than her twenty years Karl thinks she is ready for anything, but her mother’s selfishness has destabilised her. She hits the road in search of Jean who was last seen in Vegas. After a picaresque Greyhound journey which takes Karl out of Canada for the first time, sees her lose her virginity and pitches her against a host of misfits, she confronts her mother who reveals some devastating truths and long-held secrets about their shared pasts. After the shock of these revelations Karl is confronted by the limits of her mother’s love. Cracks begin to appear in Karl’s cynical veneer, and these open her up to a new emotional landscape. Having given up on Jean she falls for Eileen, a woman twice her age. On the strength of a coin toss in Tulsa, Oklahoma Karl follows the object of her desire to St Louis where she embarks on the rest of her life. Free of her parents and in love for the first time, Karl realises happiness might just be possible if she can allow herself to believe in it. The Tulsa Coin Toss is Karl’s journey from cynical detachment to finding a place in the world told in 80,000 words.
Excerpt from Chapter One
Half of this loaf of bread has been eaten by my dead father. The kettle whistles at me, and I stare at the offending loaf in the garbage can, my empty stomach weighing up my levels of desperation. It’s not the first time I have cut mould off something in order to eat it. I decide against it today, telling myself the bread is not just mouldy, it is dead; its yeasty soul is already looking down at me from bread heaven. That is too messed up even for me. I make some Nescafé and take a deep breath, as if sucking in Napanee’s ice-cold air will nourish me. Time to hunt down a job. Time for a cash injection.
I open the back door, the metal frame of the screen dragging across the top step like it always does, reminding me of all the other chores we never got around to. The sun is just above the horizon casting long early morning shadows. It is one of those perfectly clear crisp winter days you see in the opening scene of a film just before they find the dead body. It will snow any minute. I can feel it in my bones. I walk up the hill to Dundas Street where traffic is angrily grumbling along. I get to the Land O’Lakes Employment office just as my nose starts to run. I have a permanently wet nose from November to early May, just like a dog. Not just wet, but red. Bioluminescent if you want the correct term. Strangers on the street sing Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer at me all winter. As if having a red nose is cute. It’s not.
The office smells of carpet glue and fibreglass partitions. I study the boards. There is nothing for me. A guy asks if I need help. I had him down as a security guard but despite the synthetic suit it appears he is higher up than that. I make an appointment with him to speak to someone. Maybe there’s stuff not up on the boards, the juicy jobs where people are handpicked for their charm, wit and talent. As if.
I am motioned by the non-security guard to sit across from a motherly woman whose nametag reads Marge. She is on the phone right now talking in a little baby voice to what I assume is her son or daughter. At least I hope it is. She might be one of these people who talk like this to her hubby wubby. I pick at the Frosted Cerise on my nails thinking I shouldn’t, but I can’t help myself. Ella gave it to me to wear at the funeral. I always regret nail polish because when it starts to chip off I feel like a homeless teenager, and homeless I am not. A home is the one thing I actually have. From the look of things Marge isn’t going to solve my problems. Condescension oozes from her.
“So, what can I do for you?” She has finally stopped cooing and put the phone down.
“I am looking for a job,” I say stating the obvious and trying to sound as if I like her, as if I like this whole set-up.
She looks at me with blue mascara-ringed eyes. “Well, what sort of job? Is there anything on the boards you’ve spotted?”
“There’s not really anything on the boards. They’re mainly construction and driving jobs.”
“Have you got your license? There’s a good delivery one going.” She lifts her glasses on their chain and places them at the end of her nose to read out the details from a well-fingered index card.
“I don’t drive,” I tell her.
“Oh, now that is a shame. How about catering? Have you ever done any serving or hospitality work?”
“No, but I could learn.”
“Now, that’s the spirit. I like a bit of gumption.”
She gets another index card out of her drawer and reads it out at me. “Buffet and banquet work available to well-groomed and responsible male or female. Must be over eighteen and able to work flexible hours and some late nights. Ten dollars an hour. Discretionary gratuities.”
She peers over her glasses at me. I think I can smell her. I wonder if she has her period.
“How does that sound?” She asks after a pause. Then adds, “You are over eighteen I take it?”
“Um. Yeah. I’ll be nineteen soon,” I want to ask about the tips but I’m too proud to bring it up. I hate coming over as desperate. “Where is the job?”
“Well, that’s just it. You’d be serving banquets, weddings, funerals and office parties all over town. It doesn’t say you need a car, which is unusual. You might want to go for this one. Could be a while before we get anything suitable for you. At this time of year with Christmas coming and all we don’t get too many new jobs coming in.” She is using a well-manufactured look of concern on me.
God knows why, but I decide to believe her. “OK. Fine. I can start whenever.”
“Great,” she exhales in my direction. I lean away from her slightly.
After a bit of paperwork I get up to leave. As I am walking out she adds, “Complete Canadian Catering will try you on a three-month probation. If it works out, you’ll be kept on, and if it doesn’t you’ll get a letter.”
I look at her hair-sprayed head.
“OK?” she asks.
Part of me hopes I get the letter. Not that I have anything better to do with my life right now, but the whole thing reminds me that I am stuck here, stuck in Napanee, stuck with nothing but my need to get out. As I stamp through the grey-carpeted lobby I bump into the unbelievably named Wade Smalls. He is the youngest of my dad’s poker buddies and although it seems completely weird to me now, he used to baby-sit me when my dad went on dates. When I say baby-sit, I really mean he would put together some Kraft dinner making a huge song and dance about how he added tuna to up the protein content. Then he’d let me watch horror films on the sofa until I fell asleep. I hope he doesn’t go into the ‘My How You’ve Grown’ bullshit like he normally does. As I go up to him to say hi he starts to turn away. I am not sure if he’s embarrassed because I’ve caught him job-hunting or if it’s because of my dad.
“Hi Wade,” I offer.
“Oh, hi!” He pretends to have only just noticed me. “So how you doing Karl?”
“OK really. Just looking for a job.”
“Yeah, I hear ya.” Then out of the blue he says, “We all miss him you know.”
“Thank you.” It’s an odd response, but it’s what comes out.
Then he surprises me, “He owed us all money too you know.”
“Really? God I’m sorry.” I want to say more but I also don’t want to get embroiled in my dad’s old poker debts. A lump of disappointment lodges in my stomach joining all the other lumps, the lumps of sadness, despair, hopelessness and manic hilarity at my situation. They’re all there having a party in my digestive tract.
“It’s OK,” says Wade. “Most of us gave up on ever getting our money back ages ago.” He lets out a little laugh and then says I should come over for dinner and meet his new baby. I say yes, and we both know full well this will never happen. And not just because I am not a baby person but because it is one of life’s rules that when you plan to meet up with someone you bump into, it never comes to fruition.
Once outside I am dying for a cigarette. I go to George’s for a coffee and order a slice of pie. The crust is thick and stale and the base is soggy from being in the fridge too long.
George asks how it’s all going. “You know you can always talk to me,” he says.
“Yes, I know.” The thing is I don’t want to. I am more like my dad than I want to admit. He was what is known as a man of few words. Is there such a thing as a woman of few words? Or do we just become mysterious? It’s not so much that I have nothing to say; it’s more that I have no one to say it to. No one I really trust that is. Of course I have Ella and a few others from high school. But no one who is a soul mate.
George leans across the counter at me and adds quietly, “If you need money until you sell the house, you know…” He shrugs.
He is a saint. He is offering money to the girl who used to come into his restaurant high as a kite and tell him and his whole family to go back to Cyprus; and his customers, the ones I didn’t like the look of, to fuck off. That was a couple of years ago now, in my purple hair and diluted pupil days, but I repeat: he is a saint.
“Thanks George, I think I can get by.”
“But when the lawyers get involved…” He waves his hand in the air and shrugs in that way of his.
I haven’t even thought about lawyers, and say so.
“You will,” he says shaking his head.
I finish my pie and light up.
“When are you giving up?” He asks, pointing at my Craven ‘A’.
“Hopefully never,” I reply, and we both laugh. “Well George, I should get back.”
“You don’t want another coffee?”
I know he wants to keep me there partly for the company and partly because he worries about me being alone in that empty house.
“No, I’ve got a lot to do still.”
“OK.” He shrugs again as if to say ‘have it your way.’
Back outside my boots click on the cold sidewalk. The house is freezing when I get inside. I crank the heating up thinking ‘Dad will pay for it,’ and then I remember I have no dad. This still happens sometimes.
Our house (I still can’t think of it as ‘my’ house) is one of those L-shaped bungalows. You know the type. It’s got the requisite grey aluminium siding, the white window sills and the lime green carpets. It is the house my father died in, and where I have lived all my life. In fact I have slept in it every night of my life except for four nights of a school trip and the odd sleepover when I was little. It is no different from ninety-nine percent of the other houses on the street, except that some of them are painted slightly darker or lighter shades of grey, beige or brown. I read in the paper just the other day that grey is Canada’s favourite house colour. Kind of sums us up. In fact I, Carlitta Jones, was born in a grey brick hospital on a very grey day (or so I am told) in Napanee in 1984. And apparently, even I came out grey from all the drugs they pumped into my mother. Typical of her to go for all the drugs she could get. Any excuse to abdicate responsibility.
There’s a message on the answering machine. I press PLAY and hear her voice. It sounds shaky as if she might have been crying. This is the second time she has called here in thirteen years. The first time was the day before yesterday, which was only five days after the funeral. After thirteen years of doing her little mother-on-the-run routine she suddenly wants to get in touch, which is totally laughable. That’s the only word I can think of to describe it, except of course it doesn’t make me laugh. She leaves her number but forgets to leave the area code, again. Typical. I am clinging onto every word, pause, breath and background noise as a way of putting a picture of her together. Is she ditsy, drunk or just not very good with the finer details in life? Probably all three. At least I don’t have to worry about calling her back just yet.
I pour myself a Scotch and sit in the living room. The sun streaming in picks out dust motes in their soft-edged shafts. There are dark patches on the mantelpiece where my dad’s trophies once stood. I told Ella to give them to Max just after he died. There is something reassuring about his stuff finding a good home. Without them the room looks emptier. There’s still a bookshelf full of Louis Lamoure and Carl Sagan books and some car manuals. Also a cupboard full of sporting equipment: goggles, kneepads, gross worn out jock straps. He hadn’t walked for ages, but as long as he was still breathing it seemed heartless to throw this stuff away.
The phone goes and I let the machine kick in. If it’s my mother I don’t want to be taken by surprise. It is Ella so I pick up.
She sounds out of breath. “You’ll never guess who just called?”
“No idea.” I am not in the mood for guessing.
“Dalton?” I let the information sink in for a second. “What the hell did he want?”
“He’s just bought a house and he invited me over for dinner. Weird huh?”
“Which bit? The buying a house or the dinner invitation?” Ella doesn’t answer. I prod her, “ you’re not going are you?”
Again Ella doesn’t reply immediately. I let the silence continue because I know she is about to come up with a corker.
“I wasn’t going to and then I thought it might be fun if we both went.”
“Are you nuts?” I shiver. “Anyway why is he asking you out? You haven’t seen him since grade ten.”
“No, and I’ve hardly even thought about him.” She pauses. “Well since Max anyway.”
“What do you mean since Max anyway”?
“Well, you know. You always remember your first.” Ella laughs. I am not sure how true this is but I let it pass. I don’t have a first yet.
“Oh god. Next you’ll be telling me you’re still in love with him.” I am getting angry at her sentimentalism. “Ella just stay away from him. He’s a dick, his friends are dicks and even his brothers and sisters are dicks. They’re a whole family of dicks.” I pause here for emphasis. “You seem to be forgetting the small matter of an abortion and a few razor blades some years back.”
“I know, I know. But he really sounds different now. He’s studying to be a gynaecologist — and he’s dying to show off his new house.”
“Oh great, so you’ll forgive and forget because the guy’s studying women’s vaginas all day and wants to show his high school friends his tasteful Shaker furniture. Are you nuts?”
“Listen Karl, I know you are going through a tough time.” She pauses here. I can feel her building up to something. “But I have to say you are more cynical than usual, and it’s not just me who thinks this. Besides people can change you know. Just trust me OK? He sounded different. Why don’t you just come out tonight and have a good time for a change?”
I want to ask her what ‘people’ she is referring to but I let that pass too. “Tonight?” I say. “I’d rather eat my own arm than sit around a table with Dalton Delaney and his hockey jock buddies.” I stand up to close the curtains, and knock my glass onto the sofa. The ice slithers under the cushions. “Shit”.
“What was that?”
“I just knocked my glass over.”
“Your glass of what?”
I know where she is going. “Yes I am getting tipsy here on my own in the daytime and yes my insane mother has started leaving messages on my machine. Yes I am sleeping in my dead father’s house and contemplating making toast from the loaf of bread I bought for him ten days ago. Yes the whole scene is fucked up but I am not desperate. OK?” I pause and soak up the Scotch with the sleeve of my sweater trying to coax the melting cubes of ice into my ashtray. I wonder if Scotch stains and whether this will bring the price down on the sofa when I come to sell it.
“OK, OK. I see that you really don’t want to come out. You just want to wallow in the shit you are in, but don’t come crying to me when you feel lonely. I’m giving you a chance to meet some people and have some fun and you just throw it in my face.”
“Ella, it is really sweet of you to think of me …”
She interrupts me. “It was actually Dalton who asked me to ask you.”
I am stunned. At high school my friends, few and weird as they were, had nothing to do with his friends. I always hated the guy. I decide in my head that he has joined that cult that makes you say sorry to every person you have ever been mean to in your life.
“So, are you interested in coming out then?”
“No not really.” I can hear Max in the background.
“Uh-oh, Shrek is over. Think about it and I’ll call you later.”
Ella puts the phone down. I have been caught off-guard. Ella is so kind she always thinks the best of people. But I know Dalton Delaney. He was the jock who did well at school. He was handsome in a wholesome way, which allowed him to get away with stuff. I remember a story about him dropping acid one morning when his class had a history exam. It was on November 11th and their teacher decided to roll in some veterans to talk about World War I instead. That was the kind of luck Dalton Delaney had. I am making myself angry just thinking about him. He got Ella pregnant when she was fifteen and then forced her to have an abortion. She tried to kill herself and when that failed she got herself pregnant again as soon as possible by some asshole as a way of making up for the dead one. He took no responsibility for any of that. I am convincing myself that staying in and making yet another list of all the things I want to do with my life is a better way of spending an evening than sitting around a table making small talk with these people.
I head into the kitchen to forage. Opening the main cupboard I realise it’s time to do some shopping. Rice, a jar of peanut butter, grape jelly, some tinned corn, tuna, and a spray can of Easy Cheez. All bland and easily swallow-able, and all bought with my father in mind. I spot a tin of Heinz lentil soup-4-one and open it. The Scotch is making itself known in a warm trickle running through me. Everything is a bit slow and fuzzy. I am enjoying this feeling and pour myself another drink. I zap the soup in the microwave and just as it dings the phone goes again. I stand still so I can hear who it is. My mother’s voice thinly spreads through the living room. I hold my breath so I don’t miss anything. This is the third time I have heard her voice since I was five years old. And it is freaking me out. Where did she get my number? I can only think her mother in Toronto must have filed it away somewhere for just this sort of occasion.
“Hello honey. It’s me again. I don’t blame you for not answering any of my calls. I know how busy you must be with everything. But honey, I would really like to talk to you.”
I can hear a man in the background and then I hear her say something with her hand over the receiver. Her voice is back again and she says, “He had a will you know. I just want you to know that.” Then she repeats it, “a will, he had a will. I just thought you should know about it. It might make things easier for you too. Carlitta, Call me. I miss you. I love you. OK, bye for now.” And she hangs up.
Her phone calls are like guerrilla attacks, random and unexpected, but much less honest. Missing me? That is ridiculous. She’s had thirteen years to visit me. I am still not sure what she wants exactly, but this mention of a will gives me the distinct feeling it isn’t good. I bring my soup into the living room and play the message six more times. The voice in the background must be her boyfriend. I hear him say something that sounds like ‘bastard’ and ‘Carlitta’. Now that is weird: some guy in South Dakota or Salt Springs or Santa Barbara or wherever who I have never met saying my name — which isn’t my name anymore — to my mother who I haven’t seen in thirteen years. I listen to her other messages to check if there is some kind of story here. She seems less nervous in this one. Her voice is stronger. Maybe she’s had a stiff drink or a beta-blocker. Or maybe she has her strategy all worked out now that she is over the shock of her husband’s death. They were still legally married in his eyes. Poor old dad, his one revenge was to never give her a divorce. I remember seeing a letter when I was around ten pleading for him to let her go. To set her free. He was a stubborn old bastard and never gave in. I have to admire him for that although it now seems that she is reaping the rewards of his stubbornness.
I turn on the TV and finish the lentil soup. It doesn’t really go with the Scotch but I need a bit of stomach lining. There is nothing on so I land on MTV and watch of all things the new Avril Lavigne video for My World. She actually name checks Napanee in this one. We’re all tarnished now. God you’d think she was Mother Teresa the way people around here talk about her. You can go to her pizza parlour, her record shop where she got all her crap ideas for her crap songs. If I have to listen to Complicated one more time I think I’ll puke. Her record has just gone platinum, which is just another sign that we live in a completely screwed up world, not a complicated one.
Luckily some new British band comes on looking all eighties revival. MTV is like crack. I always want to watch just one more, which of course means twelve or fifteen or forty more. Settled now in my father’s La-Z-Boy my mind wanders in this darkening room to my mother, and my father. It is almost impossible for me to have them both in my head at the same time. My father was always around but distant and my mother was never around but remained a massive presence in this house. She was a great big emptiness that followed my dad and I around.
The sun has set quickly today. Winter is here. The headlights of passing cars throw intermittent shadows through the cream gauze curtains. I am trying to picture the last time I ever saw my mother and father together. I want to have an image in my head of this moment but I don’t so I spend a lot of time creating this picture and it changes daily. Today we are at a picnic table eating chicken wings. We are laughing and my mother says to my father that she can eat more wings than he can. It is like an ad from the fifties. The colours are those of a candy necklace and I am looking at my parents with an ‘aw gosh aren’t they adorable’ look on my face. I am jolted out of my daydream by the phone. It is Ella again.
“Hi. Did I wake you?”
“No, not really. What’s up?”
“Well, have you thought about it?”
Oh god, I’d forgotten about Dalton’s stupid dinner party. I am tired and give in. “Yeah. I’ll come. What the fuck.” I hope Ella appreciates it.
“Great. I’ve got my mom coming over to look after Max. Why don’t I pick you up just before seven thirty? Dalton said dinner would be around eight.”
“OK, see you then.” God she really does sound excited.
I surprise myself at my sudden nervousness. What will I wear? What can I talk about? All that dinner party bullshit is not me. My life has been pretty non-eventful of late: looking after my dad and now going through his shit. I have nothing to talk about except my favourite songs. And they all happen to be by P.J. Harvey at the moment. I’m sure they’ve never even heard of her. They would probably compare her to Avril, which would be a major crime against music. Besides, we’re all too young to sit around a table making small talk. We have the rest of our lives for that. Well, they do. I will be doing other things, although don’t ask me what exactly. I make some coffee to undo some of the effects of the Scotch, but it undoes the good work of the lentil soup and brings the pain in my stomach back.
I pad downstairs to get dressed. I have never liked my room. The windows are right at the top of one wall. You can’t see out unless you stand on your tiptoes. My CDs are lying everywhere, clothes are in piles. All this mess makes me feel out of control. I make a mental note to tidy up. I take my skirt off and add it to one of the piles. I opt for a pair of jeans. It is freezing outside which means it will be boiling inside Dalton’s house. I choose a pink top with thin straps. It shows off the butterfly tattoo on my right shoulder and the black bird on my left, but not the flower between my shoulder blades. Hardly anyone has seen that one. My dad never knew about any of them. I definitely want more but I am just waiting for the right time, the right design and the right place. Then I pick up my striped cardigan with the red plastic buttons. What look am I going for? I am not good at this. Make-up is also something I have never understood. I brush mascara over my eyelashes and dab on some lip-gloss. That is the extent of my abilities. I’ve just started bleaching my hair. It was Ella’s idea and I like it. It is growing out though and the roots are showing, so I put it in two ponytails. I’ll have to get Ella to cut and bleach it again soon. Oh god I look like a pixie. I go upstairs to get my cigarettes and make another cup of Nescafé. The coffee is sobering but I still feel tired. I replace P.J. with The Doors. I’ve had enough oestrogen for one day. With the curtains closed in the living room I can give Love Her Madly my all.
I wonder if my dad ever listened to the words to this one. The phone rings again. This time I am feeling so good that I answer it before the machine kicks in. It goes quiet and then the person hangs up. For some reason I feel it was not my mother but that guy I heard in the background. I let the coffee, cigarette and music bounce me around the room in a bubble of pure pleasure, trying to forget the phone call. I could never have played music this loud when my dad was still alive. In fact I wasn’t able to do much. My life was organised around health visitors, medication, drips, cleaning him and his accoutrements, and generally keeping him pain-free. I wonder how much my dad thought about my happiness. He never mentioned it. He acted as though I was put on this planet to make his life easier. I am definitely not having kids. When it’s my time to pop off I don’t want it to ruin anyone’s life. Just as the CD is getting into People Are Strange the doorbell goes.
Ella comes in looking very pink. She has overdone the sun-bed. She tells me I look great.
“Thanks, but I need you to do my roots,” I say, and she nods. I put on my navy blue pea jacket.
“Is that the only coat you’ve got?” Ella asks.
“Yes, now let’s go.” I push her out the front door.
Ella looks at her watch. “It’s only seven o’clock, let’s stop for a drink on the way.”
“OK,” I say. Moth-eaten pea jacket or not, I convince myself that tonight I am up for anything.
This novel excerpt was short-listed for the Lightship First Novel Award, 2012: http://www.lightshippublishing.co.uk/
And long-listed in the WowFactor/Cornerstone's First Novel Award, 2013:http://www.cornerstones.co.uk/#/wowfactor-competition-2013