With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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On Sundays I go to the country, to Arandale, to sit on Annie’s rotting deck and look up at the sky, so soaked in blue today it could almost collapse. This is Annie’s sky, and I need to witness it with her every week, just as I need to stack firewood with her and wash my hands in her cold water. Without Annie, I’d be just a shadow blowing around the big city. Annie colors me in, makes me real.
The trip to Arandale takes me an hour, though Annie can do it in half the time. I drive the speed limit, glancing at the needle often. When I pass cars being pulled over on the Trans-Canada, I steal a look at the contrite offenders and think to myself, They deserve it. Exit 77 funnels me onto Arandale’s meandering “downtown” strip, spare and haphazard, with all the urban planning of a Monopoly game. But when I turn left at the 7-Eleven, everything changes: the wind, even the light. I hit that first farm behind the row of poplars, and the aroma of hot asphalt and exhaust gives way to the smell of cut grass. Roadside produce stands appear, their crude painted signs announcing raspberries in early summer, and later tomatoes, and Arandale’s famous sweet corn. I slow down to savor this part of the drive, the soft blues and greens, the long dirt road out to Annie’s farm. The last intersection is a four-way stop in the middle of nowhere, on a road where animals are often killed, dogs who forget to look both ways. Annie has lost two dogs this way.
This farm is Annie’s place: the house hidden behind leggy bushes that spill over the driveway; soft white curtains in the attic bedroom; a rusty swing set and a coop long abandoned by chickens. The well dries up in summer, and the muddy driveway swallows cars in spring. Flies and dogs and Annie greet me at the screen door.
Lately, I get a stomachache every Sunday afternoon, thinking about Monday morning, my advertising job in the city, and my boss, Janet. It feels like I’ve swallowed a chair. “I don’t know how you do it,” Annie says, peeling an orange for four-year-old Ben and looking at me with detached wonder, as if I were the skeleton of an animal in the ditch. “I could never work like that on something that had nothing to do with me.”
Annie sees right through my thin veil of security, the dental benefits and the paycheck. Sometimes I think she’s a prophet, foretelling changes in my life before I’m ready to face them.
“C’mon, let’s go out to the barn,” she says. We cross the driveway to the building where cows once cast their shadows in the damp black dirt. Now it contains works in progress: a highchair painted with a dancing rooster, a child’s dresser on which the dish runs away with the spoon.
Annie is working on an old table and chairs, coaxed from Eric at the salvage yard. First she preps the pieces with white latex ceiling paint, the little brush flicking over the surfaces like a cat’s tongue, cleaning and making everything new again with tidy, deliberate strokes. While this first coat is drying, I sit on a stool and watch as she mixes her palette: a streaky, fluid turquoise and a rainbow of tropical colors, bold and electric. At her side is a children’s picture book of ocean-dwelling plants, fish, and corals, which she glances at for inspiration while listening to me whine about work. She just nods her head at my complaints — nothing new to add on this subject. But telling Annie eases the pain a bit, leaving only fatigue and a dull ache, as if I had spent the whole night in the bathroom with food poisoning.
The primer coat dries fast. In no time, the flat pages of the book are coming to life on curved table legs. I watch in awe and spit olive pits into an empty tin can. How I wish I had a calling, any calling. We have fantasized about opening a gallery cafe to exhibit Annie’s work. “You could make picture frames and do marketing,” Annie says enthusiastically. But I know better. I would end up making cappuccinos while whatever it is I really need to do with my life remained a mystery.
At supper time, Annie lights the big, dirty gas stove. I’ve never learned to light a gas stove, or even a barbecue; I’m afraid of blowing my hand off. Growing up, Annie always lit the lanterns and built the beach fires. She played with power tools, never hearing the voices saying, “You can’t do that. You’re a girl.” I heard those voices loud and clear, though Annie tried to toughen me up. Sometimes, at the summer camp where we worked as counselors, she threw spiders and beetles and rotten apples at me. Later, in the dark, she’d hold my hand and walk me to our tent.
Now Annie tosses some garlic into the saucepan with a little canola oil, and supper begins to come together. As always, I’m surprised. There is nothing in the fridge or the cupboards. Each visit, I try to bring a treat, like ice cream, and some provisions to see us through. I don’t know why, but I can never quite believe that Annie has enough provisions of her own, that she can actually provide for herself and little Ben, especially with the phone cut off and the company demanding a five-hundred-dollar deposit to reconnect it. When she finds the ingredients for spaghetti sauce — a few tomatoes on the verge of decay, an onion, a heel of wine, half a zucchini — it is a miracle, the loaves and the fishes.
Moving a basket of laundry and a couple of broken toys, I settle into the swivel chair and begin reminiscing: “Remember Newport Beach, when we took a shower on the dock with the hose? What was that old guy’s name?”
“You’re always bringing up that trip,” Annie says, bristling. “Talk about dwelling on the past. . . .”
“I am not always dwelling on the past,” I say. I don’t understand Annie sometimes. Would she rather forget how close we were? How we took care of each other?
She doesn’t look at me, just continues sautéing the onion and crushing dried herbs in her fingers before adding them to the cast-iron saucepan. Her thick blond hair is pulled back in a ponytail, the ends uneven. It has never looked right; every time I see it I want to cut it myself. For years now, I have wanted to do this.
We clean off the long wooden table, and Annie wipes up breakfast crumbs with a cloth. She grabs a broom and starts sweeping up the garlic peel by the stove and the coffee grounds at the sink under the window. Annie put that window in herself, as well as the skylight, and all the shelving. Everything here has been touched by her meticulous hand. Crazy fool. I don’t know why she wastes her time. What’s to stop the owner from moving in here himself, now that Annie has turned his squat into something livable? I’m learning, though, just to keep my mouth shut.
It’s already getting dark outside, and the house is cooling off. Later, we’ll go back out to the barn, if dinner cooks fast enough. The tomato sauce is too thick. Annie adds half a bottle of flat beer and the juice of a rather dodgy-looking orange, followed by a pinch of fennel and a tablespoon of wildflower honey. These are the things I learn when I’m around Annie — practical things, like how to improvise a recipe, and how to patch the knees of my jeans with scraps from velvet curtains. Annie even taught me to drive, in her father’s station wagon, when we were both underage. As I held my breath and steered past a red Chevette, she pointed to it and said, “Remember that car; it’s the first car you ever passed.” I do remember. I remember more than that:
Two fifteen-year-olds in the school chapel, itchy in our navy blue wool tunics, we wore crepe-soled shoes so as not to disturb the nuns who lived upstairs, the nuns we never saw. Annie was my best friend. Every day, I would eat her lunch and she would eat mine. Our high school was old, a chalky cream color, like flour cooking in butter. It felt Italian, as if da Vinci were hidden somewhere in the rafters, and underneath the gymnasium lay a crypt where popes were buried. Little lambs, we sat on the proverbial hard wooden benches while Father Mancuso delivered another frightening homily about the wrath of God. We sang, “Dona nobis pacem.” We ate the body of Christ.
After Mass, we knelt on crushed velvet in the corridor outside the big wooden chapel door, quietly laying our pencils and pens beside our prayer books. It was Christmas exam time. Perhaps Mary, looking gently upon us from inside the gold-leaf frame on the wall, could help. I had nothing to lose, not having opened a book all semester. I was on my knees before God.
It’s true that I talk about the past more than Annie. I’m the historian, keeper of the archives. I have all the notes we wrote each other in high school. Annie never saves anything. I don’t like lending her things anymore, clothes especially, because I never see them again. Whatever I hand over to her inevitably gets destroyed by paint or bleach, or is lost, or forgotten, or made into something else. When Annie lends me something, she doesn’t expect it back. She just lets go. Annie is always letting go.
“What are you thinking about?” she asks, moving the sauce to the back burner. I shrug and chew my fingers. Annie has this way of looking at me sometimes, as if she’s thinking, Poor you; you’re really quite pathetic. But what comes out of her mouth is “You’ve got time; you could have a nice hot bath before supper.”
“Nah, I think I’ll skip it tonight,” I say, though my head itches from the dust and the heat. I don’t like taking baths here — the water reeks of sulfur.
It’s a quarter to eight. Ben is still up, but he’s running out of steam and becoming whiny. He stands with the top of his flat, square head at my elbow. His lovely baby smell is long gone; now he smells like a wet wool sweater in a damp cellar.
Annie has obviously had enough of him for the night, too. Now comes the familiar struggle: how many buns will Ben get away with having before dinner? I never know whose side to take. It’s late and we’re all famished, but Ben would eat the whole bag if she let him. It ends in tears. I don’t interfere with how Annie raises Ben. I’ve basically kept my mouth shut since she first told me she was pregnant, three years after graduation. “Guess who’ll be celebrating Mother’s Day?” she said.
Annie and I like to laugh at Ben. It isn’t fair, but we do it anyway. Sometimes I feel like we’re just two kids baby-sitting, and at the end of the day we’ll be going home. The truth is, I’ll be going home to my apartment in the city, and Annie will be staying here in Arandale, miles from anything, with an unreliable truck named Blanche and barely enough firewood. Tomorrow she’ll be waking up in this house with a four-year-old to take care of and laundry heaped high in the bathroom like bales of hay; and she’ll be deciding what to sell next. There’s always a hint of despair on her face when she kisses my cheek at the door. It’s alive and frantic, Annie’s despair, hiding just underneath the skin.
At ten o’clock I back down the driveway, almost taking a bush with me. The tires spit gravel under the car. I’m alone with the sky and the black countryside. I don’t relax until I reach the lights of town: strip malls, gas stations, and finally the highway.
It’s October. Annie has a new boyfriend, Pablo. He sits in the chair in front of the fire and reads the Bible. When I arrive with a bag of olives and a plastic banana necklace for Ben, Pablo comes to the door all smiles and kisses both my cheeks. I want to hug him. In this damp weather, his body is warm and cosy, like a plate of muffins. This is the ritual with Pablo: a big display of affection when I arrive, but when I leave he won’t even come downstairs. I know he kisses everyone this way; I know, and yet I forget. I imagine the kisses are really for me.
Pablo works nights catching chickens, the only job he could get without a work visa. The grim reaper of the chicken world, he chases them around a barn at four o’clock in the morning, rounds them up, and throws them onto a truck. He doesn’t like to talk about it; death passes over his face at the very mention. Pablo doesn’t like to talk much about anything. Annie makes him hang his chicken-catching outfit out on the porch, where the dogs eat. I don’t like going out there; there are bits of kibble and chewed shoes and bones on the floor, and it smells of dogs rolling in dead fish at the edge of a lake.
We sit on the deck under Annie’s sky, now black and blue like the mother of all bruises. The rain has let up for a few minutes, though the eaves are still dripping, keeping time like a metronome. Pablo has gone out. Ben is visiting his dad. We are alone.
“How’s work?” Annie asks.
“The same,” I reply, and I think how tomorrow, when I’m at the office and my boss, Janet, is reading over my shoulder, the fact that I was ever here on Annie’s farm in Arandale will seem impossible.
“What do you want to do?” Annie asks. Something in her voice pleads, “Take me away from here.” But what are we going to do? Take the bottles back to the store? Go to the thrift shop again?
We make toast and jam, lots of it, with butter, too. I’ve brought sourdough bread from the bakery in the city. Annie has one jar of homemade raspberry jam left in the cupboard. We made it last summer from berries we collected ourselves. We eat several pieces of toast and reheat yesterday’s coffee in a saucepan on the stove.
“It’s actually not too bad,” I concede, taking a sip.
“Ha! Tell that to Pablo. He wouldn’t even drink it the first time around. He said it was ‘made without love.’ ”
“Get out of here!”
“I’m totally serious,” Annie says.
I feel the vitriol rise in my stomach. “He’s got a lot of fucking nerve.”
“Yeah, apparently there’s a lot of things I don’t do right. Did you know that rice must be cooked according to cosmic law?”
“Yeah, in other words, fried in garlic and oil and then boiled. The whole house smells like a Greek restaurant! You didn’t notice?”
We take our coffees to the couch. Annie throws another log in the wood stove, then pops my Eric Clapton cassette into an old tape deck from the salvage yard. I close my eyes and am instantly transported to Annie’s old apartment: the bed on plywood and milk crates, the two of us huddled underneath the covers in turtlenecks and wool socks. Now Annie splits kindling on the hearth in Arandale, and Clapton sings:
Oh, won’t you please read my signs, be a gypsy,
tell me what I hope to find deep within me.
Oh, won’t you please read my signs, be a gypsy,
tell me what I hope to find deep within me.
My car has a dead battery, so Annie has come to collect me from the bus depot. She arrives an hour late, having forgotten to set her clock ahead for daylight savings time. She looks so little in that truck; she could easily pass for a high-school kid. Surely I could never again look so small and vulnerable. She reaches over and opens the passenger door for me. In her dirty sweater, she looks like a sheep who has lost her way.
I heave my stuff into the old Chevy. Annie’s eyes are red and glossy. Before I can ask what’s wrong, she whispers hoarsely, “I just took a home test. I’m pregnant again.” She looks at me gravely, then casts her eyes downward, rests her head a moment on the steering wheel between her paint-flecked hands.
We don’t speak. The shock settles over us like ash. I feel as if I’ve left my body on the bus that is turning around and heading back to the city. I remember our talk this past winter, by the wood stove, when I sat in the swivel chair with my feet on the hearth until my legs started to burn. “You don’t know he’s sterile if a doctor’s never tested him. The fact that he’s never gotten anyone pregnant before does not mean he’s fucking sterile.” She remembers that conversation, too, I know, but being right is little consolation now.
We drive with the windows open, smelling the grass that has awakened and begun to grow again. Annie has a new pair of windshield wipers. Everything has a sharpness to it — no soft focus, no blurred edges.
Annie pulls into the driveway, coaxing the Chevy through the mudhole that is spring’s calling card. The truck shudders to a halt beside the chicken coop, but we don’t get out, not right away. I look out the window at the row of trees in the distance and wonder what lies beyond, never having explored past the edges of the property. We haven’t traveled very far, Annie and I. Once, I thought we would see everything together, share eyes, interpret the world for each other. I would be Ruth and she would be Naomi. And every September we would go back to school. I would eat her lunch and she would eat mine. Every day.
I hear Annie’s hand on the door handle. We have observed our moment’s silence for the things we have given up. Now there’s work to do. Wood to gather. Cradles to paint and tiny clothes to sort.