This chapter is part of the ongoing serialization of The Archaeologists, the new novel by Hal Niedzviecki to be published by ARP Books in Fall 2016. The Archaeologists is being serialized in its entirety from April to October with chapters appearing on a rotating basis on the websites of five great magazines. Read the first installment here. Next week's installment will be up at Taddle Creek, Friday, July 15. See the full schedule here.
The time for the girl to come has passed and the girl hasn’t come. Not the queer pretty one with all her questions or the quiet plump brown one with the boy’s name who only came once. It’s quiet, they’ve taken away her dinner tray, evening settling over her small apartment like a veil. Rose resists the urge to close her eyes and drift off underneath that ever-present scrim. She twists in her chair, feels her bones creak and grind—spring is coming, the changing seasons getting in her joints—but that’s not it, that’s not what’s bothering her. It’s what the girl told her, and what she told the boy reporter. Bones. Indians. Curses. Bad business. She should have kept quiet. Stayed mum. All these years, 104 years, and she still can’t keep her mouth shut. She never could. Of course these days it’s less and less of a problem. She’s alone most of the time. She’s alone now. Is she? Of course you are, she snaps at herself. Don’t be stupid. So what is it that she’s feeling then? Something’s happening. Something’s going to happen. Rose sighs. She can’t shake the sense that something horrible has been put in motion. Right here, she thinks, right here in Wississauga.
The phone rings. Rose startles. She forgets she even has the damn thing. It was her daughter who insisted she install it. And it’s her daughter who’s calling. Who else? After the girl comes and then goes, after the dinner tray comes and goes, that’s when her daughter calls. Today the girl didn’t come. But her daughter is still calling. Frankly Rose would’ve been happier if it’d been the other way around. Beggars can’t be choosers. Not that she’d ever been a beggar. Her daughter said she’d pay for the phone line. I’ll take care of myself, Rose snapped, thank you very much. She has money. She gets her old age every month, and the money they gave her when they threw her out of her own house like a dusty chesterfield no one wanted anymore. So, yes, she has money. Once a month she carefully writes out a cheque for the phone bill. Everything else they take right out of her government cheque before she even has a chance to say so much as a how-do-you-do.
The phone keeps bleating. She should just unplug the infernal contraption. But then her daughter would ring up the nurse. She’s done that before, all in a foolish panic. They’d come barging in without knocking, asking their questions—How are you doing there, Rose? Why don’t you answer the phone, Rose? Do you need to go to the lady’s room, Rose? Some of them she can’t even understand: the Black one, the China one. Speak English, she wants to tell them.
It’s no good. She might as well get it over with.
She reaches a shaky hand out and grabs the heavy plastic receiver.
Well who else would it be? Rose snaps.
Jesus Mom, happy to hear from me much?
Don’t you take the Lord’s name in vain with me, missy.
Sorry Mom. Her daughter sighs on the other end.
I’m still your mother and don’t you forget it.
How are you, Mom?
I’m fine dear, Rose says, her tone softening. I’m just fine. She isn’t fine. Even the air in her room feels different: alert and alive, like a night animal. The evening traffic sluicing by in the distance.
Are you sure, Mom? You sound…
How would she know how I sound? Rose hasn’t seen her daughter since she came back to help her move into the home seven years ago. And even then she was barely there, rushing to and fro, constantly staring at some kind of gidget-gadget, tapping at it with her fingers. I’m over here, dear, Rose has had to announce more than once.
How are your knees, Mom?
My knees, dear? Well, you know, I’m not as young as I used to be.
Have you seen the doctor lately?
More sighing. Are you at least using that cream I sent you? And wearing the necklace? It’s excellent for arthritis.
Her daughter sends her things. A strange smelling tube of green paste. An aquamarine necklace dotted with magnets and blessed by some man, some Sri something-or-other. She went all the way to the other side of the country to be near this man, this stranger more interesting to her than her own mother.
And are they helping?
Well, dear, I’m still having a bit of trouble getting around.
She’d given the necklace to one of the nurses.
Rose’s daughter is her youngest. And there are the two boys. Grown up now, of course, they both live in the city. They come to visit once a month or so. They bring their wives, sometimes their children; they aren’t children anymore, all of them staring at their gadget- gidgets, tap-tap-tapping. Rose wonders what will become of them. She knows where she’s going. She isn’t worried about that. But the rest of them, she really can’t say. They aren’t young anymore. Her youngest, her daughter, she’s over sixty already. She isn’t married. All that way to be near Sri something or other and she doesn’t even get married. It’s not like that, Mom, her daughter she says whenever Rose brings it up. Well what’s it like? Rose wants to know.
Mom? Are you still there?
Yes, of course, where else would I be?
I’m worried about your knees, Mom.
I’m fine, dear.
Rose is getting tired. Even a phone call tires her out these days. She just wants to close her eyes and forget all about it. The queer girl, the Indian ghost, the reporter Hal Talbot. All of them swirling around her, some kind of unholy trinity, something terrible coming. Rose can feel it.
The devil’s work, Rose mutters.
What’s that Mom?
Of course she wouldn’t believe in that. The devil.
Are you okay, Mom?
I think, dear, I’ll just have a rest now.
Oh, okay Mom. I’ll talk to you soon. Okay? I’ll talk to you soon?
Rose lets the receiver slip from her shaking fingers and is relieved to hear it click into place. Now she’s alone again, alone in the buzzing static silence.
Not alone. Not quite.
She’s so tired. Rose digs her fingers into her scrawny thigh. She needs to wake up, rouse herself. She can’t just sit here and wait for it to happen. She’s tired of waiting. The girl comes, or she doesn’t come. Her daughter phones, her sons visit—or they don’t. Death hovers over her. Everyone waits for her to die.
They can keep waiting. But Rose is tired of it. Waiting.
It’s teatime. The 7pm news is on, Hal Talbot talking about a meeting happening, a meeting about that new road down by the river. They’re calling it an “expressway.” They call every road an “expressway.” Where’s everyone going in such a hurry?
It’s teatime, but nobody’s come to make Rose her cup of tea.
Do they think she’s just going to sit here, waiting, forever? The June girl, that Hal Talbot on TV, her daughter with those special necklaces and magic potions. Everybody thinks there’s an easy way out. Well, there isn’t. There’s no such thing as magic. That’s the devil’s work, oh yes. You open the door a crack, just a crack, and it all comes flooding in.
Rose sniffs the air, catches the scent of burning toast. That scrawny beanpole Bernie down the hall is always burning toast.
He’ll start a fire one day.
Hal Talbot interviews the man on the street.
Rose stares at the street on the screen. When was the last time she walked the “expressways” of the town she was born and bred in?
She just wants a cup of tea. They can’t expect her to sit here all night without her cup of tea.
Rose fumbles for her walker. She leans forward and grabs its handles. Then, in a Herculean feat, she pulls herself up and over. Her knees creak like old stairs. The pain shoots up her thighs and down her calves. She stands, her swollen feet bobbling in her slippers. It doesn’t matter. She’s still here, she’s still alive, and she isn’t going anywhere—unless she wants to.
Hal Talbot is off now. The girl with the tight blouses and the makeup is doing the weather. Rose shakily advances her walker, ignoring the fact that she can’t really walk. She gets the handle of the door turned. She presses into the door. It swings open. She inches out into the hall. Slowly but surely, she’ll get there. She’ll walk the streets of her town. She’ll buy a car, a bottle, a shiny gidget-gadget that tells her where to go and what to do. She’ll dance, alone at night, the devil pressed tight to her withered breast. Why not? What else is left for her? There are nights when Rose wakes up gasping for air, thinking: Don’t you dare, don’t you even dare.
Rose shuffles down the long hall. Midway to the elevator sits the empty nurses’ station. Rose glances over. There are pictures taped above it, snapshots of children, scrawled crayon drawings. Rose feels her knees, tightening, buckling. She wills them to bend, drags herself forward. The pain is nothing. Rose knows pain. She buried her husband in the rain. Since then she’s been alone. She’s been vigilant. Not ever opening that door. Not even a crack.
Rose stops in front of the elevator. She stabs the button. She feels her strength ebb, her body slacken. No, she thinks. She’ll get there. She tightens her grip on the handles of her walker. Where’s there? The elevator dings. Rose prepares to haul her body across the threshold. She looks down and sees her bony knuckles, grey-white protruding as if she’s already died, her flesh withered away.
The elevator door groans open slowly. Rose hears laughing. The devil’s wet snaked tongue undulating. She lifts her head off her chest, her neck cracking.
Two nurses, giggling. They stare open-mouthed at Rose, the oldest person in Wississauga, hunched over her walker, just barely holding on.
Then the black nurse says, in the loud sing-song dialect Rose prefers to pretend she doesn’t understand: Rose! Whierr ya goin’ girl? Ya takin’ youself down to the beauty parlour, now?
And they start laughing again.
Hal Niedzviecki is a writer of fiction and nonfiction exploring post-millennial life. This was an excerpt from The Archaeologists, to be published by ARP books in Fall 2016.