Article Category Archives: Fiction

Hysteronia

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The whole family started acting weird. They weren’t sick, like with the flu or whatever, just pained and hobbled and whiny, Donna said. Like they’d all caught the menopause.

Funny.

Not when you hear how it ends.

She told you this at work?

In the lunchroom. Donna said it started with the woman’s own decay, which happened like that [snaps fingers]. “Imagine a needle scraping across your greatest hits,” Donna said, “and then, boom! It’s over. The only sound is….” Wait, I gotta get this right: “The fulsome circling around the dusty finish.” Scritch, scritch, scritch.

Did Donna make that sound?

That’s the record player sound.

You added that part.

You wanna argue sound credits or hear the rest of the story?

OK… complex record-player metaphor, sick family. Go.

She and Donna met and shared an apartment at university. They partied, lived on processed cheese and cheap draft, graduated together. They’ve been close ever since, even live in the same neighbourhood. Donna told me once, “Picture yourself at a rock show at midnight, standing in front of the stage with cowboy boots on and a drink in each hand, cheering and spilling and going deaf.” That’s basically how the woman lived her life.

Basically, not literally.

Well, d’uh! The spirit of that, though. Living in the moment type deal, full of risk and audacious energy.

Audacious energy?

You don’t deserve to hear this story, Anusha.

I’m listening!

So outta the blue, the woman starts, well, aging. One day she’s out for a long run, uphill both ways, with zero stretching or anti-inflammatories. Next day she wakes up and her bedside table is covered with pill bottles and cross-stitch and self-helpy books. She gets up, achy, sweaty, exhausted. Tries to get dressed but nothing fits because overnight, she got fat!

What do you mean “overnight?”

Overnight.

OK, because before you were being metaphorical.

No, literally.

How old is she?

I don’t know, like… ten, fifteen years older than us?

Early fifties.

Around that. So this woman is totally baffled.

And delusional.

No, no. Donna’s known the woman since forever. The woman told her it felt like someone was playing a trick on her, like she was starring in some reality show about old women.

Weird.

Gets weirder. The woman wanted to ask her husband what the hell was going on but he was in the basement huffing and puffing on his stair-climber fitness thingy.

Elliptical?

Yeah. I’ve never tried it.

Great exercise and easy on your hips and knees. Apparently, if the tension’s right, you can get the same workout as running.

You an elliptical saleswoman now?

Just passing on gym scuttlebutt, Marie.

Anyway, woman puts on an old pregnancy skirt and oversized concert T-shirt and sits on the bed confused and sleep deprived. Then bingo, she figures it out: she’s menopausing.

More like meno-fastforwarding.

Haha. Right?

Did she have a dry vagina?

What?

I hear your vagina dries out in the menopause.

Jesus, I don’t know! Donna didn’t say.

Anyway, you started by talking about the family getting sick.

Well, if you’d let me continue! So her mind starts racing. What’s next, the woman wonders. Sweater vests? Polident? Sunday morning aquafit?

Thick ankles. Age spots. Downgrading your investment risk.

Right? So all these horrifying things are coiling in her head when her uterus starts cramping like the devil himself is trying to squeeze out one last period. She starts weeping, partly because the best years of her life are over and partly because the pain feels like a sucker punch to her empty ovaries. Ovaries like compost bins for dying strands of DNA. Surprise! the punch says. Remember when you were lusty and fertile? Me neither!

That’s a lot to unpack.

Absolutely. So she’s wiping away tears when her daughter knocks on the door, also crying, because, guess what? She just started her period!

Like, first time ever?

First time. So, despite the strange coincidence and her own suffering, the woman shifts into mother mode and tells the daughter it’s normal and has to be endured and offers the girl a pill.

A painkiller.

What other pill’s she gonna give her, heroin?

I don’t think heroin comes in pills.

Oh for Crissakes!

I’m sorry! If you’re gonna use examples, be accurate.

The girl can’t take a painkiller because, remember? When you’re a kid it seems impossible. Like you’ll choke and suffocate. So the woman crushes the painkiller in peanut butter, feeds it to the girl and sends her off.

Is the peanut butter relevant?

Try to keep up Anusha, OK? The mother’s own cramps are getting worse—tells Donna it feels like her uterus is being corroded with acid. So she reaches for the painkillers and, oh shit! Her shoulder!

What!?

Shooting pain like she’s being stabbed by a shaft filled with molten lava.

Isn’t all lava molten? Isn’t that the definition of lava—molten rock?

Just lava then, OK brainiac? So she sits on the side of the tub and is practically hysterical at this point. I told Donna that’s funny because in the olden days, they used to call menopausing women hysterical. It comes from the Latin word … hysteronia I think, meaning insufferable, middle-aged woman.

Hystera you mean.

What?

Embroidery by Natalia Tjiang with the words Happy Wife, Happy Life

Happy Wife, Happy Life by Tali Tjiang

From the Greek, hystera, meaning uterus.

Whatever! Did you know women in the really olden days never went through menopause.

What are you talking about?

They died before it happened.

Ha! The blessings of a short life expectancy.

Totally. You know, some women bleed non-stop when they’re menopausing.

You’d die if you bled non-stop.

Not literally!

Literally. Not literally. Make up your mind!

You want more coffee?

Love some.

Aaaanyway … after a short pity party in the bathroom, the woman stands up to wash her face and when she looks in the mirror, she sees movement on her head, like she’s got lice or something.

Ewww! You didn’t tell me there was lice in the story! You know I have a thing!

Calm down. It wasn’t lice. It was just grey hairs blooming from the part in her hair. She told Donna they looked like “dusty wires pushing through drywall.”

Speaking of drywall, we just renovated our bathroom.

Oh yeah? Nice.

Wait, she could actually see grey hairs growing?

Before her very eyes. But she told Donna no point wallowing. Menopausing didn’t magically erase all the stuff a mother has to do right? So off she goes to wake her son for school.

He older?

Younger. Like eight or something. Boy says, “Please don’t make me go to school.” “What? Are you sick?” she asks. “No, it’s my shoulder,” he says. “There’s a pain when I try to lift my arm, like a hot poker stabbing me.”

Same pain as mom.

Same.

Is Donna sure this woman isn’t suffering from Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy?

The hell is that?

You know, when a parent ascribes fake symptoms to a child, pretends they’re sick when they’re not.

That’s messed up. No this sounds legit. Donna says the woman’s son explained the pain in detail and it was the exact same symptoms she had. So, mothering kicks in again. She swallows her own pain and they do some stretching thing together but it was too painful so she rubs the boy’s shoulder with a topical ointment.

Those creams are useless.

Waste of money. So she says to the boy, “Go eat your breakfast and you’ll be fine.” Then she goes to the basement to find her husband but he’d already left for work.

What’s he do?

Insurance broker, apparently. So the woman gets the kids out the door and decides to do laundry before tackling a report she’s been working on. She’s a graphic designer, works from home. The cat comes into the laundry room to use the litter box but it’s acting funny. Walking in circles, eyes kinda milky, lame back paw, stomach dragging on the floor. Cat’s barely two years old!

And?

It was like the cat was menopausing too!

C’mon! This is a joke, right? Punchline coming?

Donna swears it’s all true.

I don’t know about this Donna.

She’s the head of HR. Masters in social work. Comes to work in pant suits. Volunteers at an animal shelter. Not the embellishing type.

I don’t know what to say.

Good! Just listen then. The woman’s on her way up the stairs to her office but has to stop and sit because she’s so tired, seeing white spots floating before her eyes like she might faint.

Drop in blood pressure.

When she goes to stand up, holy dyin’ she falls back down!

What now?

Her hip! Donna says she got a sharp pain like her hip just cracked.

Like the head of the femur or further down?

How should I know?

Is that part of menopausing?

Oh yeah. Bones crack like toothpicks.

Awful!

So the woman scoots her way downstairs on her ass and crawls to the living room couch where she sits, weeping and looking through old photo albums of when she was young and beautiful: hiking up mountains, dancing at Burning Man, swimming in the ocean, stage diving at The Ramones.

Why doesn’t she call an ambulance?!

I know! That’s what I said. But Donna said she just hates to make a fuss or be a burden. After a cup of tea and rest, she hangs the laundry, finishes the report, makes a double batch of blueberry muffins—her daughter’s favourite.

So, slacks off, in other words.

Haha. Yeah, unbelievable.

This coffee is great by the way.

Thanks. It’s from that fair-trade place in Little Italy. Hipster hellhole but great coffee. So… as the day goes on, the woman’s condition worsens. Her head gets super heavy and starts sinking toward the ground, rounding her spine like a fish hook.

How does Donna know all this?

I guess the old photos made her nostalgic and she called Donna late that afternoon and told her everything. Donna freaked and told her to go to emergency—even offered to take her—but the woman refused. Said she had too much to do.

Haha. Of course she said that.

And now, well…. Donna’s totally beside herself with grief.

Wait, why?

A couple hours later, she called Donna again. Said her son got home from school and when she asked about his shoulder, he said he had a new pain. Guess where?

Hip.

Yup. He said when he stood up before lunch, it felt like his hip cracked. The teachers didn’t think it was serious enough to send him home but the boy was obviously distraught.

What did the woman do?

Well, by now she’s bent over like a crone, aching all over and trying to figure out what the hell’s going on. Is menopause contagious? Can kids get it? Is her pain real? Is theirs? Will she ever find relief? Apparently she handed the boy the TV remote and a bowl of chips and left him there with Netflix.

With parental controls on, obviously.

Maybe, maybe not, right? She told Donna the daughter was whining when she got home so the mom crushed another pill—painkiller—and sent her to bed with a hot water bottle. Then the husband gets home.

Finally! So…he takes her to the hospital.

Nope. Husband goes straight to the den without saying hello. The woman follows but it takes, like, a half hour to get there because she has to keep sitting on the floor so she won’t pass out. When she finally arrives at the den, husband’s got a drink in one hand and his face in the other, and he’s crying!

What?

Blubbering like a baby. When the woman asks what’s wrong, he says something about his withering male virility and the pointlessness of his monotonous job. Says he’s tired of people calling him in crisis. Says he’s depressed!

Great.

So the woman says “You can’t be depressed, I’m depressed!” And he says, “Look, I didn’t ask to feel this way.” And of course, the woman shifts into loving spouse mode and asks if he’s hungry and he says maybe some spicy dip with garlic bread would be nice and she shuffles off to make it.

The hell is wrong with this woman?

She gets to the kitchen and the cat comes in, moaning and slow blinking up at her, pawing the woman’s foot. So the woman leans over to pet her but something cracks in her back and she can’t straighten up so she just tips over and lays on the floor.

Oh my god!

She calls for help but nobody hears her so she drags herself to the phone and calls Donna.

Not 911 of course. That would be too sensible.

She tells Donna about the cat and the husband, says she’s on the floor and can’t get up. Donna says the woman was wheezy and barely audible. Donna told her she was calling 911 and coming over.

What a relief!

Donna lives a few blocks away so she arrives before the ambulance. She knocks on the front door. No answer. She goes in anyway and finds the woman….

Yes, and…?

Dead.

….

Dead-dead?

Yes.

From menopause?!

Donna screams and the family comes running. Guess what the husband says?

[?]

“Looks like I’m making supper tonight.”

Shut up!

Donna was right there!

Beyond belief. When was this again?

Couple weeks ago.

Je-sus. Funny, not funny.

Yeah.

Scary, actually.

Very.

I mean, that’s us in a few years!

Well… you sooner than me.

Ouch.

Zing.

….

You gonna finish that brownie?

No, no. You go ahead.
 

Good Game

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Second Half. The Cunts are down two-nothing against their rivals, the I’m Not Letting You Merges. Number twelve, center-forward, has the ball wedged beneath her fancy Nike cleat, laces grey and unwieldy as her pubic hair. The ref is a teenaged boy, pudding-faced and porn-addicted with a whistle-leash draped around his neck. He hates reffing the over forty, division-three women’s league. The players scare him. They are emotional and in constant pain. Braces are scaffolded to their legs, and tensor bandages cut off their circulation, cut off their feelings. They run on gluten and wine and animals they can’t stop eating. And then there are the players that flirt: number three on the blue team, number sixteen on the white. Ref scans to make sure they’re on the field. To make sure they’re not on the field. He adjusts himself.

“Keeper ready?” Ref asks, eyeing the goalie guarding the net on the west end of the field. She is familiar to him. She is every woman in an ad for life insurance, except with a youthful high ponytail and thick white socks. The keeper waves, or gives the finger. Ref can’t discern which.

He turns to view the opposite end of the field and repeats the question. Keeper is not ready. Keeper will make everyone wait while she takes a parting sip of vodka-water from her stainless steel Marshalls-purchased bottle with BORN READY written in gold meme script across the rim. Her power is making people wait: contractors, customers, her husband when he comes home for dinner with fish and chips and someone else’s titties wafting from his moustache. Keeper sets down her bottle. “I’m always ready,” she shouts. Ref blows his whistle.

cartoon by Dawn Mockler showing women's soccer team attending an outdoor party and knee-bouncing the food

Soccer Party Dawn Mockler

Twelve passes back to Three. Three is distracted. She is contemplating whether she could ever go down on a woman. Specifically Barb, from accounting, possibly even Fourteen on the Cunts. Why would Twelve pass back? It’s indoor soccer. The field is short. Three chases the ball, tries to get a touch. She only knows a few lesbians, and certainly none well enough to ask what it’s like to get it on with a woman. Maybe if she got high first. A blue jersey is in front of her. Fifteen from the other team. Where the hell did she come from? Twelve yells, “Man on!” Man on? Three thinks. Man already gone. It’s why she’s thinking about Barb’s spreadsheet. Three wants to yell at Twelve, ask her what she was thinking passing the ball back. Instead, she complains to Four.

“Offside!” Four wheezes. There’s no offside in Indoors, everyone thinks, everyone knows, but Four insists. Four believes. She storms down the field, a petulant child with fallen arches and roots that need touching up. Someone will pay for Fifteen’s offsidedness. Her credit rating, her cholesterol. Her husband, the next time he tries to cop a feel when she’s watching Dead to Me on Netflix. She’ll slap his fucking hand. Tell him to change the friggin’ light bulb in the closet so he’ll stop asking her if the pants he’s chosen to wear are navy blue or black.

“Play on,” the ref calls. Fifteen hasn’t stopped playing. She always has the ball because she’s faster than everyone else. Younger too. She likes to surprise her opponents. Sneak up on them like a credit card balance, like age. She likes to remind them that they are closer to death than they think. Closer to death than they’ve already come to accept. That they graduated from high school forty years ago, and that there’s no time left for them to write a memoir unless it’s a cancer one because nothing interesting has happened in their life.

Ten races toward Fifteen. Fifteen is getting cocky and loses the ball. Good riddance, Ten thinks. You should’ve passed it when you could. You should’ve had children when you could. Ten feels good that she has the ball. She feels good that she has four kids. She feels good that right now she doesn’t want to knife anyone. She smiles. A teammate cheers her on because she’s dethroned the infallible Fifteen who just sits home all day. In her effort, Ten loses her balance. She steps on the ball, a wonky circus bear, and falls flat on her back.

“Ah, come on!” Seventeen yells.

“Foul,” Four echoes. “She tripped her.”

“She stepped on the ball,” Fifteen retaliates, pacing against the boards.

Thirty steps onto the field, a middleweight Jesus with mahogany hair. No make-up. She’s in the medical profession. No one really knows what that means. Physiotherapist? X-ray tech? Hospital clerk?

Ref can see his reflection in the glass boards surrounding the playing field. He fixes his hair. He wants to check his phone to see if Adelaide snapped him back. He wonders if she’s the kind of girl who sends nudes.

Thirty hovers over Ten. “Breathe,” she commands. Then she waves a trio of fingers in front of Ten’s face. “How many fingers am I holding up?” She says it loud enough for her husband, who is watching in the stands, to hear. He will praise her later because she is important and very valuable.

“Three,” Ten replies.

“Did you check her pupils?” Twenty wants to know. She’s heard others ask this in similar situations.

Thirty pulls out her glasses for effect, says that Ten’s pupils are good, and then turns back to her patient. “Any nausea?” she asks. All the players reply yes.

Miraculously, Ten is okay, and she gets to her feet by herself. Nothing too serious. Just that same hamstring she tore in Gettysburg. She is replaced by Five.

“Drop ball,” Ref says.

Newly-arrived Five squares up with childless-by-choice Fifteen. Ref leans away expecting to be breathed on, or whacked by an inadvertent fist, a rogue knee. A sexual assault. He drops the ball between the players.

Five and Fifteen miss the ball and punt each other. Four sees this as her chance. She barrels forward and takes both players out, including her teammate. Having been bitten by an unsuspecting midfielder on the I’m Not Letting You Merges, the Ref doesn’t see who’s at fault, and therefore doesn’t blow the whistle. Instead, he cradles his cheek.

Four kicks the ball too far ahead of her. Always, thinks Seventeen, always too far. Four tries hard to recover the ball but gases out and has a heart attack on the field. At least I’ve landed on the ball, she thinks in her dying moment. They’ll have to move my cold dead body to get it now.

The players move Four’s hot dead body to the bench, noting the smudge of moustache on her upper lip. She smells like garlic, but no one lets on.

Back on the field, a fistfight is underway. Keeper-with-juvenile-ponytail and Seventeen have suggested the Ref just call the game, given Four’s death and all, but Fifteen and Three still want to play. Both argue they might die if the game doesn’t continue.

“It’s just a game,” Twenty chirps.

“Everything’s a game to you,” Five replies.

Five isn’t wrong. Twenty does believe that life is just that—a game. It’s what motivated her to embezzle a hundred grand from her daughter’s private school. It’s why she sleeps with her financial advisor. It’s why she sleeps with his wife.

Ref presents yellow cards to the fighting players. Keeper-with-juvenile-ponytail and Seventeen leave the field peacefully, but foam pours from Three’s mouth, and Fifteen has wrapped a piece of orange net cordage around her own neck. Her face turns the blue of her jersey. Ref sighs, stuffs the yellow card back in his pocket and whips out a red card instead.

Adelaide sends nudes!

Three combusts, blackening the turf. Fifteen loses consciousness. Ref shakes his head as the ball sails by him into the rafters. The remaining players on the field have decided to continue the game on their own, even though Ref never blew the whistle. Even though he never said, “Play on.”

Ref follows the ball as it arcs beneath the dangling fluorescent lights and lands inside the pub beside the spectator’s lounge.

“It’s still in!” Thirty hollers.

“My ball,” Ten replies, charging by. She kicks the air, and the air goes into the top right corner. Nothing but net.

“Nice shot,” Five whoops.

“Whoo hoo,” Twelve adds. “Perfect angle.”

“It was your pass,” Ten replies, jovially punching Twelve’s arm.

Ref looks at the clock. Seconds count down. There’s no time for another kick-off. He looks at the Away bench. The players appear to be eating Four. A head rolls onto the field and stops at Center, where the ball should be.

Ref points to the scoreboard and blows his whistle three times to signify the end of the game. The teams spill onto the field, collapse into each other and shake hands.

“Good game,” they say.

Number Three sends nudes.
 

Listen to Ali Bryan read “Good Game.”

The Pandemic

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His very darkest brown eyes sparkled and were so vibrant in contrast to his blond, prairie-field fluffy head of hair flowing freely in the wind. His eyes jumped with the excitement he carried in his nine-year-old body.

He was as excited as any nine-year-old boy would be with the notion of going home. To be reunited with his maternal brothers, hopefully with Father and all his paternal extended family, too. Especially his friends. His excitement soared.

This time it was different, as this time he had to be extra careful, donning gloves, a mask, and sunglasses. He called it The Corona. It was his friend he retorted, likely his way of remaining calm and showing he can be a big boy.

Nanny drove with them most of the night. A police car followed them for kilometers, turning onto a road leading from the shores of the South Shore Atlantic toward the airport. They passed the time with idle chitchat, mostly about Corona. Covid-19 they called it. A global pandemic. The streets of the little town they had lived for the past few months were bare.

Nanny reminded her daughter at least a hundred times to wear her mask and gloves and glasses, not to touch her face. Wipe things down with the carefully, thoughtfully, hesitantly packed Clorox Wipes, neatly wrapped in two large baggies.

She really didn’t want them to go. She was deathly afraid. So afraid she was almost immobilized. She didn’t know how to express her fears let alone hide them. You see, she was the Matriarch of her little family. Most big decisions went through her. Now, her only thought was: How do we get through this?

There were at least sixty wipes folded into each bag. Every time Nanny reminded her daughter, she said, “I know, Mom!”

Nanny had planned to go too, but then changed her mind. Who would to be here to take care of the rest if indeed her daughter became infected and died? What if her daughter brought it back? Someone else in her care could lose their life.

Air Canada changed their flight at least six times. One time her daughter even accidentally cancelled the flight with the link they provided, thinking she could change it. She was in a panic after two and a half hours of waiting on the phone. The second leg of the flight had now been reserved but with a ten-hour wait at the busiest airport in their country. Her daughter was frazzled but thought maybe the airport agent could help them get a better connection. No such luck. The government was directing flights.

It was now late afternoon. Time for them to go through security. Nanny’s heart sank. Could she hug them? She looked at the Security Agent. At first he wasn’t going for it, but Nanny’s boy came and gave her a hug. Nanny had tears in her heart, hoping and praying for their safety.

They did make it to that big metropolis and once there decided to get a hotel room for the ten-hour layover. When it was time, they got on the last leg of their travel and finally arrived late at night. Nanny could sleep when she heard they were safely at their destination city and their true home.

(Original link with readers’ comments here.)

A Nice Pair of Stilettos

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Fifteen years ago, my first job—real job, not babysitting. A shift at John’s Steak Place.

“Keep the tray in one hand. Make it effortless. And you’ll need new shoes.”

The shoes, black and worn, chunky in the heel. Sturdy enough to get me to high school and back. And Deb, the woman giving orders, dark hair fading to grey, permed to loose curl, early wrinkles around the eyes and a lingering smell of menthols buried in her skin.

“You’ll make enough in tips tonight. Get a nice pair of stilettos, used if you have to. I expect them next shift.”

The tray didn’t balance, wouldn’t balance. My right hand constantly darting out to steady gin and tonic, rum and coke, plates of Caesar salad and dry ribs, whatever soup was on special. The next night, new shoes made it worse, ankle twisting left and right, Achilles taken to the limit, trying not to show my weakness while Deb laughed and walked in heels like she was born in them, confident, steady, like a swan on a lake.

It took two weeks to get it right, my wrist tight, aching with new use. Fingers strong enough now to hold back the hands of my grabby boyfriend, twisting his arm away, driving ‘no’ home.

I dumped him. Like the tray. Five times in the first week.

*

You only get stronger, better, the longer you do it. Deb was a riot. Friendly. She never gave me any pointers after the first week, just little winks when she saw me watching, listening, admiring. They ate out of her palm. New customers, regulars, the repeats. The smile, free hand on jutting hip to playfully scold a customer. Men loved her because of that smile, that laugh. Women liked her because she was caring, inquiring, but never at the wrong time, never when they had a mouth full of food. Even John liked her. And she didn’t seem to mind him. At any rate, she never let John get to her.

The restaurant had been John’s for twenty years. He was fat, getting fatter. Stingy, getting stingier. Never slapped our asses though. New girls would start and rave about their luck. Worth tipping out, they said.

Once I started at John’s, I didn’t leave. I liked Deb, liked the food, liked the location near my house. Liked the checkered white and black floor, the fake-gold gilded mirrors on the walls and the plethora of plants. I loved being able to sleep in, to get ready for work only after I was over my hangover. I liked staying late with the staff, having a few drinks at our own private bar after close.

About a year in, I dropped a tray, first one in months. John pointed at me with his that’s-coming-out-of-your-paycheck finger. Deb slipped me her twenty-dollar tip from table three.

After we closed up that night, Deb and I were cashing out with rum and cokes, a plate of poutine set between us, stilettos on top of the bar, shining under the lights.

“You’re young,” she said.

I shrugged, letting shoulders do the talking.

“You could do better.”

“I like restaurants.”

“Didn’t say you couldn’t. But you have time. Think about aiming high.” She nodded at the shoes, laughed, took a break to refill her glass. “You can be bossed around your entire life, or you can become the boss. You really want to spend your life like I have, flirting with men you couldn’t give two cracked glasses about?”

I didn’t answer, just counted out the bills. Counted my tips. Waved them in Deb’s face. “Cash in my pocket. That’s what I like.”

“Just pay attention to the small things,” Deb said. “That’s all I’m saying.”

 

Oil painting showing two red, high-heeled shoes

Ruby’s Shoes by Lisa-Maj Roos

 

Not long after that, Deb started dropping trays, first one, then another. I’d never seen Deb drop a tray. Found her in the washroom with wet eyes. Red cheeks.

She’d had a diagnosis.

“You’ll get through this. If you drop a tray you pick it—” I started.

“Don’t give me bullshit. What the fuck am I supposed to do if I can’t do this job? You see what I was telling you. I got nothing other than this job. Nothing easier. You go to secretary school, at least you get to sit down once in a while. You become a teacher, you get the summers off. You go to business school, you can run the fucking world. That’s what I should have done. My smile could have ruled the world.”

She was right. Everyone at the restaurant did what she asked. And she never asked twice. Even stingy John was convinced to put on a large party for the staff every holiday—not just Christmas.

But the slipping started, didn’t stop. Deb’s hands shook, sometimes they’d go numb. I offered to carry her trays for her, but then she’d feel bad and slide me some tips under the table.

The only thing I could think to do was reinvest that money. Like Deb said, I had begun paying attention. One night, when I wasn’t feeling up to smiling, a man asked me, “What do I have to tip for a smile?”

Another day, when my good skirts were in the wash and I was wearing one just a little shorter than usual, I stood taking an order and felt a fork slide up my leg from behind. The guys seated at table three just laughed. Deb took over serving them. I kept hoping she’d drop their drinks, tip the spaghetti onto one of their shirts. But she was too great a waitress for that, even with her illness.

Then one day she wasn’t. She did drop the spaghetti. She fell and couldn’t get up. And I wasn’t even there to help her. By the time I came in, she was gone.

Just gone.

“It was a mess,” John said. “A fucking mess.”

I’d never been to Deb’s house before. Had to get her address from John’s filing cabinet when he wasn’t looking.

“I’ll get disability,” she said. “I’ll be alright.”

She lived in a tiny little bungalow. Two small windows in the front, a neat but plain lawn around it.

“You have someone here with you?” I didn’t remember her talking about anyone, was sure she didn’t have anyone.

“There’s Rob. He’s not great, but he’s here for me. We split for a bit. Got back together and at least I have his guilt now. And you’re here. Tell me it’s because you want to know more about my great plans for you.” She smiled and slowly fixed us some tea. She was shaking but she still had the smile and the charm. I couldn’t say no.

*

My fifth job, maybe my last one. A picture of Deb on my desk. Everyone asks if that’s my mom. I don’t tell them who she is. How do I explain? Can you explain in a few words the person who shaped your life, who made you grow beyond the bounds you thought you were given? Even if I could, I’d choke up. Too hard, talking about her to strangers now that she’s gone. Too easy to miss her gentle push.

I kept on at John’s for a while. Became his favourite waitress. Whenever a new girl would mess up, a tray would drop, I’d think, Deb would have straightened her out. Taught her to balance the weight. Instead, I did it.

Whenever John got that pinched face, the permanent scowl, I’d mention something about Deb’s laugh. She never came back. She never could. And of course John never said anything about missing her. But the whole place did. The mirrors less golden, the plants less green. A good business owner would have seen it, but John was just in and out, push push push. He didn’t even see me heading out the door, didn’t see me angling toward something better.

The other girls all said, “Good for you. I could never do that. How do you work and go to school?”

“Did you ever meet Deb?” I’d ask them. Make it effortless. Buy the shoes. No one likes the shoes, but they teach a good lesson. They show you that you can walk on a bed of nails, you can work through discomfort, you can put up with bullshit and turn it around. If you can work an eight hour shift in high heels, you can do anything. Just like the tray. If you get the balance right, there’s no limit to the load you can carry. You can hold the whole world on the tip of your fingers. It takes practice but, eventually, you’ll get it right. Eventually, you might even defy gravity.

Food Fights

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Bring Your Kid to Work Day and my Eighth Grader wanted to come to the cake factory with me. You can’t have kids on the plant floor when we are in operation, and to tell you the truth I didn’t want her to see me with a hairnet and scrubs on, sorting cupcakes into colours. We make sure the cakes go into the packages blue, pink, then yellow. It’s not exactly what I want her doing when she grows up. You stand on your feet the entire day, doing the same thing over and over while listening to the supervisor moaning how the line didn’t make its quotas. Halley thinks the plant is all Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but she’d think different if she’d stood for a shift smoothing chocolate icing onto cream eclairs one by one.

Best I could do for Take Your Kid day was buy a box of ‘seconds’ cakes from the factory store for Halley’s class and send her to my friend Norma’s café for the day. She wiped the tables down and folded napkins and drank so many milkshakes she couldn’t eat dinner.

Halley would probably hate this place anyway. That heavy, floury sweetness and the hissing of the machines and the hairnet elastic itching your neck. Plus, she’s a real social kid. We work in teams on the lines, but we’re spread out and can’t talk to each other. We’ll use hand signals if we’ve got a problem—like we need the machine slowed. You gotta concentrate super hard on what you’re doing. People think industrial food production is all automated lines and robots, but they still need workers. Women have nifty fingers, so my line is women except for Rob, who pours the icing into the spreader.

Even though we stand apart on the factory floor, we are a good team. We’ll pick up the slack for someone who’s not at their best. I can tell if a girl’s tired by how she holds her hands over the cakes on the conveyor belt. Sure and quick if she slept well, shaky and slow if the baby cried the whole night. There’s a way a woman’s belly settles into her hips when she’s been on her feet for six or seven hours that means she’s feeling it in her back. We know when one of the Bangladeshi girls gets bad news from home, too. Somehow the others tilt towards her, even though they’re spaced out eight feet.

I’d like Halley to meet the girls here one day. She’d get a kick out of them—we’ve got some characters. Tammy and Paula use body language a lot. Tammy is top of the line and Paula right at the end. Their relationship is rocky. If they’re fighting, they’ll sit at the table at lunch, elbows propped, and slant their heads together rigid as an A-frame, chowing down on their food like they’re tearing into each other’s throats. When everything’s good, they sit relaxed on opposite sides of the table and tease each other. Once they were having a tiff and Tammy turned up the production speed of the cakes bit by bit through the shift. Eventually cakes were piling up at Paula’s section and she’s flailing around all panicky, trying to work out why she can’t keep up. Wicked, that Tammy. That’s as bold as it gets for pranks on the line though. No one wants to lose their job.

installation art showing colorful cake

On the Table (Dainties) by Aralia Maxwell

 

Then there’s tiny Joyce, mid-line and constantly glancing up and down it, checking, checking. I swear she knows the cake colours without looking down. She adjusts the machines and supervises the line. Been doing this for 35 years. Back in the day this was a hard place to work, according to her. No daylight or fresh air circulation, and the noise of the machinery was incredible. I guess we’re lucky to have big windows now. It’s bright and we don’t have to wear ear protection. There’s an outdoor relaxation area. The cafeteria’s clean and warm.

Joyce sticks up for her line. The Line Manager carped on about hairpins and earrings that Quality Control found dropped into the packages and glared at the Bangladeshis with their beautiful long hair. Joyce gathered up her five-foot-nothing and said management should get better hair coverings then. After, she reminded the ladies on the qt to leave their pretty jewellery at home. All the rest of us have short hair. I’ve been a single mom for eight years, no time for anything fancy. Halley could make it in management. She bosses me like crazy. Us line workers are literally the end of the line in the pecking order. Head Office issues orders and sends them to the Regional Directors, who push them on to the Line Managers, and they dump them on the Supervisors, who squeeze us line workers like toothpaste out of a tube.

Joyce may be a softy with her team, but she and her hubby go hammer and tongs. He’s retired. Joyce has two years left. They’re saving for a trailer in Florida. Joyce decided Jeff could make her lunch sandwiches every day since she did it for him for forty years. You can tell how they are getting along by the sandwiches he packs for her, and what she buys for him from the Seconds Shop. Most of us don’t eat what we buy at the shop—you lose the taste for sugar here—but it’s a big perk of the job. They sell anything slightly damaged or not quite up to standard at a deep discount. I get cakes, buns, tarts, all kinds of good stuff, for practically nothing for my mom and my friends. Jeff loves the sweets. The bigger he gets from eating them, the smaller he likes his treats. It used to be chocolate rolls and pound cake, but now he goes for those fancy little squares covered in ganache, and lately he’s been crazy about mini cherry tarts with whipped cream dabbed on top. But Joyce hasn’t bought him any for a bit on account of The Sandwich Wars.

At first, Jeff made Joyce these fantastic sandwiches. Thick whole wheat bread with layers of cold cuts and cheese, garnishes of pickles, and the best mayonnaise. We were all jealous. But then they had a big set-to. The next day it was an egg salad sandwich, the day after that bologna without ketchup. When she got a lobster roll one day, we joked that she got makeup sandwiches instead of makeup sex, but the next day she pulled a slice of Kraft cheese out of two pieces of thin white bread. Not good. Last Monday she opened her sandwich container, pulled apart the floppy bread slices, rocked back on her chair and laughed.

“What? What’d he put in it?” we asked.

“That’s what’s so funny. Nothing,” Joyce said.

“Nothing?”

She opened the sandwich in her neat little hands like a book. It was just two pieces of plain bread that looked like they’d been sucker-punched. Joyce slammed them down on the table and set off for the cafeteria line. She bought herself fish and chips and scarfed them, scowling the entire time. Storm brewing for sure.

Tuesday, she went to the Seconds Store at lunchtime and bought a tray of the cherry tarts Jeff loves. I watched her cut away the cellophane window of the box. It had a tear in it, that’s why the box was in Seconds.

“Made up with Jeff, did ya?”

“Huh.”

Something was up. Joyce carefully scooped the whipped cream off the top of each tart with a spoon and put it on a plate. Next, she took a spray can out of her bag and started reapplying cream on top of the cherry filling, so the tarts looked just like they did before. By this time, she had an audience standing around our table. Tammy and Paula were A for Anger, peering over Joyce’s shoulder. Other line workers started gathering to see what was going on. The Bangladeshis were whispering together with their hands over their mouths, and even Rob wandered over. Things were edgy, like a union meeting.

“I don’t get it, Joyce. Why are you taking the cream off and putting it back on? Don’t make no sense.”

She handed me the can and squinted up at me fit to burst while I read the label. It was men’s shaving cream. Next thing I knew, Tammy lunged right over the table, snatched the can from me, and sprayed it over Paula. Joyce burst out laughing like a steam release on the sealer machine, and suddenly it was complete chaos. Shaving cream schooshing, screams and giggles and the whole cafeteria tizzy with silliness while Jeff’s precious little cherry tarts sat still and red and perfect on the cafeteria table.

Maybe Halley should work here in the summers when she’s older. She’d learn a thing or two.