……..She didn’t know why but, out of the blue, Mira thought of Taylor. She remembered how he’d scared her. Her drinking had started to scare her too. She’d wake up and forget where she’d been or what she’d been up to, though maybe that was kind of the point in those long years after Beatrice walked out. The fact was, she spent way too much time matching first her dad and then Taylor beer for beer, shot for shot. Though with Taylor, it was usually when they were in his truck, messing around. Or when they’d drive to some out of the way place, cranking up the tunes and joking and laughing and speeding along the back roads. Hard to believe how much fun she’d had with Taylor at first. Didn’t last.
……..Once he started to scare her, it was already too late to get out of it, so she tried to be careful around him. But Taylor was so jealous, it was hard to keep out of trouble.
……..The first time he cracked her across the face was right after they got into his truck. They’d just left a party, climbed up, settled themselves in the front seat when he said, “Hey, Mira.” She turned her head and he let her have it. She didn’t make a sound, hoping it might keep him from hitting her again.
……..Funny thing. She couldn’t even remember the name of the guy – just some guy – chatting her up in the kitchen where she was helping herself to another beer. “It was innocent. It was nothing,” she remembered pleading. Taylor didn’t care what she said. She knew there was no point in crying either. He just dropped her at home and let her explain to her father about what had happened to her face.
……..Thinking about Taylor reminded her of Mr. Reynolds. How he had helped her out that time. Mira remembered how he was lounging around outside on the sidewalk when she bolted out of Kingsley’s. Of course the bartender had helped her even more. She was under-age and shouldn’t even have been there in the first place. Not that anyone cared. And she was with Taylor who always seemed pretty invincible. In fact, he had taken on her dad when Bruno didn’t want her going out “on a school night,” of all the weird things for him to have said. Taylor pushed her dad around a bit and they both threw a couple of punches, and Mira could see that her dad, pretty broken down, wasn’t going to be much help to her.
……..For sure when the bartender shooed her out, she was glad to go, though she didn’t know if she’d have to pay for it. Taylor had a head of steam on and had started in on her. For nothing, really. Just the shitty week he’d had. He was berating her about what a stupid fucking bitch she was, his voice rising and that sputtering hysterical note she’d learned to fear coming into it. Mira looked straight ahead, neutral. Three other tables. Three chairs at two of them. Two chairs at the third table which was closest to them. Two old guys at one of the tables, one of them glancing over before looking quickly away. In her mind, Mira traced the shapes of the chairs, the brown rungs at their backs, the sharp clear spaces in between. This steadied her a little and helped her blot out Taylor’s rant.
……..“Are you fucking listening to me?” Taylor had grabbed her arm and pulled her up hard to face him. The scraping of the chair on the tile floor. But before he’d had a chance to do any damage, smash things up or something, the bartender sauntered over with two quarts, and plunked one down in front of Taylor.
……..“On the house, buddy,” the bartender said as he opened each bottle and pocketed the opener. Then he looked at Mira and inclined his head towards the door. She suddenly recognized him as one of her dad’s old customers from the gas station. She stood up, and since Taylor didn’t say anything, she walked away. Just before she pushed open the door to the street, Mira looked back at the table where the bartender was leaning forward, laughing at something Taylor had said. They clanked their bottles together. Mira caught his eye, and he waved her out. Maybe it would be OK. That’s when she just about ran into Mr. Reynolds on the sidewalk.
……..He took a look in the window and said, “That guy doesn’t know how to find me. You could come over to my place for a bit.”
……..Mr. Reynolds was OK. Mira had known him since she was a kid. He was too far gone to work, but sometimes Bruno used to pay him to shovel the gas station lot or sweep away dust in the summers. He’d keep at it until Bruno would tell him to stop and send him on his way with some cash and coffee in a Styrofoam cup. Mira remembered watching Mr. Reynolds touching each tree as he moved along the sidewalk, stepping up and down three times before crossing the street. Her dad said Mr. Reynolds had always been like that and laughed about how he’d tap all four sides of a table before he’d sit down at it, and how he’d wipe off forks and knives three or four times even if they were taken, perfectly clean, out of a drawer.
……..So she went to his place, shaky, wanting to push it all out of her head. In Mr. Reynolds’ kitchen, she watched him wash his hands at the white enamel sink. He’d been at it for about five minutes when he invited her to join him. The water was too hot at first and Mira recoiled from it, but Mr. Reynolds gradually added enough cold so that she could hold her hands under the stream from the tap. Mr. Reynolds gently soaped the top of her hands and rubbed them under the water. She liked the look of their two sets of hands. It reminded her of something her mother might have done when she was small.
……..The last time she saw Mr. Reynolds was in the bar after her dad’s funeral. Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” was playing on the juke box. She was drunk. Mr. Reynolds, who’d lurched out of the bathroom, almost collided with her on the dance floor. Then he began dancing too. It was when the song sped up near the end. Those fantastic drum flourishes between choruses, and the music and the girl background singers and especially the rising strings building under the horns. What a song. That first clear guitar riff at the start. Elvis imploring Don’t you know that I’m caught in a trap. I can’t walk out because I love you too much, baby. And how it ended with everything crashing together. Everything circling crazily around her. Mr. Reynolds. The bar and the song. The people from the funeral. How pissed to the gills she was. And her dad. That’s what was beating in her heart and guts along with the music, and hurting more than anything. Her dad would be dead forever.
In my dream, I was washing Mira. The long hair she had when she was young.
Mira was in one of those hairwashing chairs used in beauty salons, her head tipped back into the sink behind it. Her eyes shut. I was rinsing the soap from that rope of hair, then squeezing water from the whole long length of it.
Then I woke up, Tony snoring away beside me and I remembered what? Seeing bruises on Mira’s arms? From Taylor? Amber had told me all about the trouble Mira had with him. But why was I thinking of Taylor? He’s been dead for years.
More of the dream started coming back to me. I was standing behind Mira, combing her hair, and, without really a hundred percent meaning it, suggested that she come and live with Tony and me. Mira dipped her head in that sad way she had and replied, “he’d find out where you live and come and get me.”
Maybe that dream was because of seeing Mira a couple of weeks after Bruno’s funeral.
That awful apartment of hers. She was sitting at her kitchen table, her hands flat out in front of her. I had this feeling that she had been waiting for me. But of course she hadn’t. I didn’t call in advance or anything, but I thought I should look in on her. Because of Bruno. It was funny how she looked up, unsurprised when I walked in, then looked back down, cringing, because I couldn’t help screaming at her when I saw what she’d done to her hair. Butchered. Uneven hunks cut off all over. She put a hand up to it, like she just remembered that she’d done it. That was when I saw cuts all over the back of her hand and arm, some bandages. And I asked her what in God’s name had happened.
“He’s gone, and I’ll never see him again. I don’t know what to do,” she said.
I looked around, for a decent pair of scissors, thinking maybe I could even out the hair that was left.
The problem was I hadn’t been to Mira’s place much, and didn’t know where anything was.
But I thought there might be scissors among all those pencils and brushes and tubes of paint on the table beside pads of paper and books. Where could she have gotten all this? And the walls had pictures she must have done, taped up. And there were paintings leaned against a wall.
The bedroom was the same clutter. Mira had always been such a pack-rat. But along with drawings stuck to the walls, there were also photographs and that’s what stopped me dead. Photographs of Mira as a baby and me holding her. And there were photographs of Bruno when he was young and so handsome. Also Mira had our wedding photo, mine and Bruno’s, on her dresser. Looking at it was a real slap in the face.
The thing is, you can’t get past the fact that in every couple, there’s always one who loves more.
Loves more and suffers more because of the fear, always somewhere under the surface, that the love can be withdrawn. Always the fear at the possible end of love.
It’s how it is with Tony and me. He loves me just a little more than I love him. Always has. He’s a good man, and I love him. Of course I love him. It’s only that I know I could live without him. And if, God forbid, he should drop dead tomorrow, I know I’d be looked after for life. Mira too, probably. I know he gives her money on the side, and visits her even. He thinks this is his little secret, but Tony has never been able to keep anything from me. I have all of him. Every bit of his mind and body and heart.
Not like with Bruno. He loved me like I’ve not been loved since but I was the one to suffer, because he owned me. Owned every one of my emotions. And it’s true. In the beginning, I would have done anything. Because I loved him more. Even though I left − I had to, God knows − I loved him more. I don’t know if he knew. How could he have known that when I was walking out the door, Tony sitting in the car in the driveway in case there should be any trouble, how could he have known that when I was looking around that kitchen one last time, Bruno and Mira playing cards at the table, even then as I was leaving to start my new life, even at that very moment, how could he have known I loved him more?
He’d dead and I still love him. Bruno Samhain is dead. All I can think of is Bruno lying in a
casket in that tacky funeral parlour that Mira probably arranged. The funeral was horrible. Mira was a mess. Bruno was gone. But even dead, even as a corpse he was still a beautiful man. Still Bruno under what all those hard years had done to him. Ten years now and I still think of him. What we had in the beginning before it was wrecked by all the boozing and other women and the business going under. Bruno and I should have stayed teenagers. We should never have gotten out of that big sexy Oldsmobile of his. We should never have gotten married. We weren’t made for that. We should never have had Mira. Not that I planned any of it.
Mira looked terrible at the funeral. And the way she came at me, clinging to me like she did when she was small. It was suffocating. I remember how she could absolutely devour me. Every minute of every day. And that awful crying that never let up.
But Bruno could get her to calm down. She’d always take a bottle from him. Of course that would be late at night when he’d get in from his carousing. He hadn’t had her all day, hadn’t had four or five straight hours of her screaming. No, he’d waltz in at three in the morning, not having bothered to come home for supper, not even a phone call. Still, it was something to see, him settling into the lazy boy with her cradled in his arms. She’d calm right down. I could never get her to do that. But even as he’d hold her, she’d watch me. She watched me all the time.
Poor Mira was awfully rough at the funeral. But she’s a tough one. She’ll get on. She’s got all Bruno’s people around her. Shame? Of course, I sometimes feel bad, even ashamed, that I had to leave her when I left Bruno. But I did. I was dying in that house. The business was going down the toilet. I could see that it was never going to get any better. The place was a war zone. And Mira was twelve already, I could see she would be all right. And she is. I heard from Amber that Mira’s got herself a rich boyfriend from up the mountain. She’ll be fine.
I can never forget that last day with him. Bruno and Mira were playing cards. I could hear the
slap of their game before I opened the bedroom door. And I could hear them laughing together. It’s better this way, I remember thinking.
I picked up the cardboard suitcase I’d packed for Mira. It had been a sort of half-hearted packing. Some socks and underwear. A few pairs of pants. A dress that I was worried she’d soon outgrow, a few shirts. Not even room for pyjamas.
But it was no good. I unpacked it. I set out her clothes in two small piles on the end of my bed, slid the suitcase back underneath it. Then I opened the bedroom door.
There was that brown stand-up lamp with the beige shade and dark stain from the heat of it being on all the time. Bruno always kept a light on. Even then, the crowded sitting room attached to that make-shift kitchen was always dim. The cracked window looking out on another stucco and tar paper duplex next to Dominic’s Second Hand Office Furniture and of course the wreck of Bruno’s gas station.
I could never break him of the lights-on habit. He must have gotten from his mother. The few times
we made it up to that woman’s apartment, all the lights were blazing. Bruno’s crazy mother wearing some flowered seersucker housedress or slacks and a cheap Orlon top. Those horrible clothes of hers. She’d pick sticky candies out of her pocket for Mira. I always made her throw them out.
The morning I left Bruno, I had it all arranged for Tony to come and get me at eleven sharp. He was more worried than me about there being trouble. “What if you can’t get away?” he kept saying when we were planning it all out. But I was already gone.
Bruno and Mira didn’t know what was about to happen. Bruno had a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. He was joking with Mira as he counted up his hand. He never got tired of beating her at cards.
And there was Mira, wiping milk from her mouth with the back of her hand, beaming at her dad. A gangly kid not yet old enough to have the boys sniffing around her. I won’t be here for any of that, I thought. But it wasn’t regret I felt. That came later. There was Mira. My child. My only child because I knew I wouldn’t let Tony get me pregnant.
Why this day? Just before I went into the kitchen,
I looked at the bed where Bruno had made love to me the night before. I looked at myself in my going away suit. There was that new hole kicked in the wall, and on my night table those photographs still lying there, smashed in their frames. There were fading finger-shaped bruises on my arms from last week. I had to go.
So I opened the bedroom door. They both looked up. “Why are you all dressed up?” Mira said. Bruno took time putting out his cigarette. “I’m going,” I said, which is not how I’d meant it to come out. That was when I was scared the most. As if he could stop me. As if he still had so much power over me.
“Where are you going, Mom?” Mira was looking at my suitcase.
Bruno still hadn’t looked at me.
“No you’re not.” His hand was poised between coffee cup and sugar
I felt like I was reciting words in some sort of school play or pageant. “Yes,” I heard myself say. “Tony’s coming for me.” The dripping faucet was the loudest sound. “Tony’s coming and I’m leaving you.” He dropped his hand, clattering a spoon or fork.
“Who’s Tony?” Mira stood up. Then she said, “Who’s that?” because we all heard Tony pulling into the driveway. He was right on time.
There was a geranium on the windowsill that needed some water. I don’t know why, but I picked it up on my way out. Tony had the passenger door opened and I hurried out to him. The engine was running. The radio was playing some rollicking classical thing and we drove away.
“Get it on. Bang a gong” is from Su Croll’s recently completed novel Image Hungry. Last summer, an excerpt won The Winnipeg Review’s fiction contest. Other pieces from Image Hungry have appeared in Descant, subTERRAIN, The Puritan, Other Voices, and Notebook Magazine. Her first book, Worlda Mirth, won the Kalamalka New Writers Competition and was short-listed for the Gerald Lampert Award. Her second book, Blood Mother, was short-listed for the Stephan G. Stephansson Award and the Canadian Authors Association Poetry Prize.