Monday, December 02, 2013

The Road to Napanee

When they stopped to pick her up, Ray was surprised Stephanie didn’t give him one of her lectures about responsibility. She never did approve of Ray’s habit of taking in strays. It wasn’t so much the weirdoes that Stephanie disliked, it was the fact that Ray made no effort to hide his kinship to them. He felt closer to the misfits and drunks than he did to his own wife and child.
    But tonight Ray was not about to drive past a woman alone on a highway in minus thirty-degree weather, with nothing but a rucksack and a cardboard sign saying NAPANEE. The tires skidded as he came to a stop.
    Stephanie turned sharply to look at him, “what the hell … ?” But her question was cut short as the woman jumped in.
    “Thanks,” the stranger said, tucking her bag by her feet. She rubbed her hands together and blew on them. “It’s fucking cold out there.”
    Stephanie said, “hey watch it.” And looked down meaningfully at the small girl sleeping on her lap.
    “She’s out cold,” Ray said in the hitchhiker’s defence. “She can’t hear a thing.”
    “Oh, sorry,” the hitchhiker said.
    Stephanie told the hitchhiker their names and then asked for hers.
    “Karl,” came the reply.
    In his rear view mirror Ray noticed the dark patches under her eyes. A pretty panda, he thought.
     “Karl. Isn’t that a boy’s name?” Stephanie had her schoolteacher’s voice on.
     “Yeah, my dad wanted a boy but all he got was me.” Karl laughed.
     “Oh, I see.” Stephanie turned back to face the front and was about to say something else when Ray switched the radio to the one station his car could pick up. He felt Karl tapping in time to the music against the back of his seat. Snow fell softly on the road ahead. He was taking it extra slow.
    “You should have got snow tires before we left. We’d be in Toronto by now if you had.” Why Stephanie had to bring this up just at this moment with the beautiful fresh snow, the music, the sleeping child and the stranger in the back was beyond Ray. He glanced at Karl in the rearview mirror. She was staring out the window.
     “Everyone is passing us,” Stephanie added.
     And it was true. Cars were zooming past theirs.
     “Well, I didn’t get snow tires so that’s that.” Ray shot an embarrassed smile at Karl who gave him a startled look in return, as if she knew more than he did.
     “Don’t you just love all this snow?” Karl said. “It’s so clean and quiet. It covers up all the shit everywhere. It even makes Napanee look pretty.”
     “Is that where you’re from then?” Stephanie still faced forward, shifting Emily on her lap. Ray thought four was too old to be sleeping on your mother’s lap, not to mention the safety issue. Forget snow tires, if they were in an accident Emily’s little body would be flung around like a rag doll. He tried not to think about it. 
     “Yup. Napanee,” Karl replied wearily. Then out came a productive chesty cough. With one hand shielding Emily’s face, Stephanie gave Ray a ‘Do You Think It’s Contagious’? look. The little girl carried on peacefully in a very deep sleep.
     The hitchhiker recovered her voice. “You wouldn’t think so, but even a town as small as Napanee gets dirty. You find shit all over the place when the snow melts.” Karl cleared her throat again. “Even my dad’s toenails got dirt under them. The guy never even went outside. But when I used to cut them I couldn’t believe how much was crusted in there.”
     Ray spotted a gas station up ahead, its lights shining through the early dusk. “How ‘bout a coffee?” He said with exaggerated uplift. What he was really gasping for was a drink, but he’d been dry for a month now and with Christmas coming he was trying hard. Coloured lights flashed around the windows splattered with fake snow. He turned the radio off and stopped the car.
     “So anyone for coffee?” he repeated.
     “No thanks. It’ll come in one of those Styrofoam cups. Do you know that those plastic cups are giving us all cancer? The chemicals from them have been found in the breast milk of polar bears. Those cups and the people who drink from them are killing polar bears and everything else on this fucking planet.”
     Ray pretended to ignore Karl. Opening his door a crack, he turned to his wife. “Anything for you Steph?”
     She looked out over the dashboard and Ray recognised her calorie-counting expression.
     “A hot chocolate with marshmallows, if they’ve got any. And an apple juice for Emily.”
     He asked Karl one more time if she wanted anything, and she shook her head. Ray stepped out, and before shutting the door he leaned in and asked Stephanie if she’d be OK.
     “Fine.” She said. “I need to pee though. So be quick.”
     Ray crossed the forecourt and while he was paying he looked back at the car. The windows were fogged up and all he could make out were the fuzzy outlines of the two women. They looked like dolls. Not moving just sitting. Stephanie was probably worrying about pneumonia, TB, or the imagined dagger in Karl’s sock. She excelled at imagining catastrophes which disappointed her by never occurring. He wondered what Karl saw, whether she could make out the shreds of what they had, or if it was too late to see even the shreds.
     As he approached the car both women looked at him. Stephanie said she was going for her pee. She slipped Emily from her lap and got out of the car. “If she wakes up can you give her some juice?” she asked Ray.
     “Yup, sure thing.” He knew he was sounding lighter and brighter for the sake of the stranger. He then offered Karl a butter tart, which she refused.
     “They came free with the coffee. Christmas cheer and all that.” He held up the bag printed with red, white and green snowmen.
     “You know they’re poisoning us with all that refined sugar.”
     “Who’s they?” Ray asked.
     “Oh you know, the bankers, large companies, corporations, all those fat cats taking advantage of us little people.”
     “What have they got to do with sugar?”
     “Oh, it’s all linked. Nobody sees it though. Well not people like you.” Karl was fired up and suddenly took on the expression of a zealot. “You see if you get everyone hooked on sugar and make them fat then they can’t do anything. They sit all day watching TV and hey presto you have an instant audience you can beam your advertising to. Oh what the fuck. You would never understand.”
     She was right. Ray didn’t have a clue what she was on about. He wanted to ask her if she was one of those conspiracy theorists but Stephanie was already back.  
     She awkwardly manoeuvred herself into the car placing Emily’s little body onto her lap. “What are those?” she asked pointing to the bag on Ray’s knee.
     “Butter tarts,” Ray said. He looked nervously at Karl who was blankly staring out at the forecourt.
     “May I?” Stephanie asked.
     Ray stuck the bag on the dashboard, “Help yourself.”
     Stephanie took a bite, and bits of pastry fell onto Emily’s hair. Ray reached over to brush them off.
    “So have you two been married long?” The question came at the couple after another fit of coughing. Karl’s lips were unnaturally red and thin, and her pale face and large grey eyes made Ray think of the pre-Raphaelite poster Stephanie had up in her bedroom when they first met.
      “Almost five years,” Stephanie said. Ray stared at his daughter’s chest rising and falling and her face unmarked by worry.
      Karl continued, “I don’t get to meet too many married people. So what’s the deal? Are you guys happy?” Ray was wishing he were sitting across a table from her talking through the merits of single life. A cigarette. A beer. A dance. And a hand on a hip.
      “That’s a funny question! I don’t know. Ray what do you say? Are we happy?” Stephanie was trying to sound light as if she were teasing him.
      He reached into the bag of butter tarts. “Of course we are honey. I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t happy.”
      “There, does that answer your question?” Stephanie seemed satisfied that this conversation was coming to an end.
      “Sort of. I mean the only people I know who have stuck together went past the happy stage into something else, like a sort of zombie stage. My folks didn’t though. My mom up and left when I was five. I don’t hate her for it. She just was never meant to have kids. Some people shouldn’t.”
      Stephanie blew on her hot chocolate. Ray wanted to know about Karl’s mother but Stephanie got in there and asked if she had any plans to get married.
      “Are you crazy?” A hoarse high laugh erupted.
      “Why’s that then?” Stephanie asked.
      “It’s like sugar. It’s just another way of getting people where you want them. Of keeping them in check. No way José. Not for me. I want to be free. No sugar in my bowl.”
      Stephanie looked at Ray, “Sugar?”
      “Yeah, don’t worry about it. Karl and I had a little chat about sugar while you were in the John.”
      Stephanie tapped Ray on the thigh and frowned. It was her code to let him know she was worried. He ignored her and sipped his coffee. He wanted to get going again but Emily began to stir.
      “I’m thirsty,” A tired voice rose from Stephanie’s lap.
      Stephanie got the apple juice out. “Ray I’m going to have to put Emily in the back seat. She’s getting too heavy.” She looked at him meaningfully.
      “OK,” he said oblivious.
      “But do you think it is OK with all that coughing?” Stephanie lowered her voice for the last word, and angling her head towards the back seat she looked hard at Ray.
      “Oh that. Yeah, it’ll be fine,” he said glancing in the mirror at Karl to see if she had clocked his wife’s comment. A pair of grey heavy-lashed eyes looked back at him knowingly. He wanted to say sorry to those eyes.
      “C’mon honey in the back you go.” Stephanie twisted around and helped Emily through the two front seats. “Now here’s your juice.”
      “No.” Emily squirmed and held onto her mother.
      “But there isn’t enough room up here. And you can’t sit on mommy’s lap all the way home. It’s illegal. Now in the back you go.” Stephanie unhooked Emily’s chubby hands from her arm and eventually got the girl sitting in her car seat with her pink blanket.
      Karl stared out the window ignoring the little girl next to her.
      “Mommy,” Emily wailed.
      “Emily, you’re alright. Now drink your juice.” Stephanie handed her the small square box with its straw poking out. The girl knocked it to the floor.
      The wailing continued. It soon became crying.
      Over the noise Ray said, “Stephanie, why don’t you go sit with her?” He would have suggested anything for some peace and quiet.
      Stephanie shot him an angry glance. “Oh all right then.” The two women got out of the car and swapped places.
      It seemed to Ray that Karl was looking a bit smug. She took off her jacket to put her seatbelt on, and at that moment he caught a breath of her scent. It reminded him of the smell that came up from the ground when he raked the leaves in the Fall. Earth and Sun and just enough decay to start making life again.
      “Karl can you pass me my hot chocolate?” There was a touch of anger in Stephanie’s voice. “And the butter tarts.”
      Ray knew that later on he’d get the blame for making her go over her allotted number of calories for the day. The fat on her hips would be his fault.
      Karl turned towards Stephanie, the leather jacket on her lap making a crisp twisting sound, and handed her the bag and the hot chocolate.
      “So are we ready?” Ray took a final sip of coffee and put it back into the mug holder on the dashboard. He glanced at Karl’s legs and noticed her jeans were worn over her knees. They looked bonier than he would have liked.
      He cranked up the radio, and sang along to ‘After the Fire is Gone’.
      “It’s crazy isn’t it? I mean this is why two people should never get together in the first place. Tammy Wynette, Patsy Cline, and all the rest of them, they knew a thing or two.”  Karl had a renewed confidence about her and shook her head with emphasis as she spoke. He snatched a look out of the corner of his eye. She had a surprisingly fine profile.
      Stephanie spoke over the singing. “I can’t hear anything you two are saying with that music blaring away up there.”
      “We weren’t saying anything,” Ray said, brusquely turning the radio down. He let out an exasperated sigh. Karl looked over at him and smiled. He hoped Stephanie hadn’t seen. God she was pretty. If only he’d listened to Stephanie and gone up north on his own this weekend, he’d be alone with this girl. For once he had convinced Stephanie to shield him from his crazy family and it had completely backfired.  
      With Karl sitting next to him, he felt he had committed some crime, when all he had wanted was for Emily to stop crying. He tried to catch Stephanie’s eye in the mirror but she was staring hard at the hills of snow, which had become simple outlines in the dusk. He couldn’t see his daughter but imagined she was now happily sipping her juice next to her mother, his wife.

After an hour or so of driving they arrived in Napanee. The snowplow hadn’t passed through, and there was waist high snow on the roads. The car crept through the centre of town, keeping to the tracks made by the wheels of previous vehicles.
     Then Emily piped up, “have you got a best friend?”
     Karl was taken by surprise. “Um, yeah, I guess so.”
     “My best friend is Freya.” Emily said. “She broke her arm and went to the hospital.”
     Ray intervened, “Honey, I don’t think Karl needs to hear about Freya.”
     “Ray, don’t get angry. It’s not like she’s doing anything wrong,” Stephanie argued.
     “I know, it’s just that….” Ray didn’t know what it was exactly. Was he embarrassed at the mundanity of his child? What seemed to him her pointless preoccupations.
     “Anywhere here is fine,” Karl said as they drove through the quiet streets.
     Ray thought Karl sounded sad, but he often heard things that weren’t there.
     “Will you be alright? Everything looks pretty closed.” He strained to see out the iced up windows.
     “Yup. Fine. I’ve got a room with a friend just over there.” Karl cleared her throat and pointed at a squat red brick building.
     “Can we go into your house?” Emily asked.
     “No, honey I don’t think so,” Stephanie said. 
     Karl held her hand out for Ray to shake, “well it was nice meeting you.”
     Ray shook her hand, feeling the fragile bones. Her skin was warm and softer than he expected. She turned to Stephanie who was explaining to Emily why you can’t invite yourself into strange people’s houses.
     “You can have your seat back now,” Karl said as she undid her seatbelt.
     She got out of the car and pulled her leather jacket tight around her thin body. Stephanie was busy reasoning with Emily about going into the front seat without having her on her lap while Karl walked around to the driver’s side. She leaned into the open window. Ray was convinced she was going to kiss him.
     “Don’t go listening to too many of those bleeding heart songs. They’re not good for your health. And stay away from sugar. It’ll kill you.” She smiled and he saw her teeth for the first time. They were small and square like a child’s.
     Stephanie was now in the passenger seat doing an exaggerated shiver. “God it’s freezing.”
     Karl stepped aside and Ray pulled the car away from where she was standing. He put his arm out the window and waved.
    “God what a weirdo!” Stephanie pushed the buttons on the radio until she came to a phone-in show. She turned up the volume and Ray felt her hand on his thigh.
    “How about dinner. Are you hungry yet?” Her voice had gone from school-teacher to wife almost instantly.
    “I guess I could eat. We’ll stop at the next town.”
Ray was back on the highway, driving through the darkness. On the radio a woman was talking about the belly dancing classes she’d taken to lose weight, spice up her sex life and make her more confident. They worked so well, she ended up dumping her husband, leaving her children, and marrying the teacher. Ray could imagine what she looked like just from the voice. It surprised him how much he hated this woman. He wanted to smash her face. Then he hated himself for thinking like this. The radio audience clapped and Stephanie laughed.
    “Imagine that.”
    “What mommy?”
    Ray sped up wishing he’d paid the extra for snow tires. Stephanie was explaining to Emily the difference between belly dancing and ballet dancing and Ray caught a glimpse of his daughter nodding sagely at this information. He couldn’t wait to get to the next town and out of the car and away from that radio and all those voices. He closed his eyes for a split second and swore he could smell that earthy scent. There was no snow at all for that second, just grass and leaves, a long, fine Fall evening and the beginning of something new, something like life.

Published and available in this beautiful anthology:

Also available on Amazon with some five-star reviews to its credit:

Also published in Cooldog, 2010.

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