Bruneel-colourbody.jpgPainting by Jeremy Bruneel
Painting by Jeremy Bruneel
“Thank god for you,” Polly said one day after work, as she and Ruth sat under the fluorescent lights of the town’s only bar. “You’re the only normal one here.” The bar was too bright. It was clinical-bright. And too many men were staring at them.
Ruth stirred her gin and tonic in its plastic cactus. “I’m not sure I can stay,” she said, addressing the novelty cup, “even if it is only a temporary placement.” Only temporary, she thought. Like a bruise.
“It’s northern Ontario, not Siberia.”
This placement in Lenders was Ruth’s first real teaching job, same as Polly. They were replacing a pair of sisters who were off on maternity leave.
“Sisters,” Polly had whispered to Ruth when they met on their first day at the school, “working at the same job, at the same school, both about to drop at the same time.” They stood in a corner of the beige staff room, away from the coffee machine and the crowds it attracted. “What are the odds on that?” Her eyes were wide. “It’s disturbing.”
“This place is disturbing, all around.”
A cluster of older teachers stood around the coffee machine holding mugs and spoons, mechanically stirring. Bits of the paint over their heads had begun to peel and fall because of water damage. The remedial teacher—Mrs. Manning? Mrs. Mingman?—brushed a few beige flakes from her hair. “Someone told me the coffee machine brews a pot automatically at eight,” Ruth said, “and then another one at noon.”
“Pretty impressive technology, for Lenders Secondary.”
Ruth was soldiering on—that’s how she thought of it. She imagined strapping on a helmet when she got out of bed every morning at six. Down the hall to the bathroom and pull the straps tight under the chin.
When they weren’t working they went over to Polly’s apartment, right in the middle of town but freezing cold even when it was warm outside. The walls had been painted grey and the rooms were huge and nearly empty. The little furniture Polly had was on loan from the school. “They clearly hate me,” she said, nodding toward the fold-out bed, an old gas heater that oozed yellowish grease into the newspapers placed underneath it, which made Ruth nervous, and a card table somewhere under cigarette filters, bottle caps, tobacco, wet tea bags and bowls of coffee. When Polly sat down for dinner she pushed it all aside, but in the five minutes it took her to fork her food around her plate, pretending to eat, everything migrated back across the table.
From home Polly had brought a striped rug, cardboard crates marked fresh lettuce and filled with tangles of shiny sequined clothing, and a framed photograph of her brother, a blond with droopy eyes, smirking over his shoulder into the camera.
“He’s dead,” Polly explained the first time Ruth came over. “That’s why I have it. It would be a weird thing to carry around, if he weren’t.”
Ruth picked up the picture awkwardly and nearly dropped it. “You look alike,” she lied, and put the picture back on the windowsill.
At Polly’s apartment next to the river and the train tracks, the two of them would hang out the window smoking cigarettes and remarking on the amount of snow on the mountains, which was always changing.
“Why would they ever turn on this many lights in a bar?” Polly complained, shielding her face.
Ruth stood up and finished her drink. “You want to come over?” She wanted Polly to see where she lived, because she wanted her to know everything.
Ruth rented a furnished room on the top floor of a house thirty minutes from the centre of town, and the walk was uphill on the way home. Polly had never come over.
They left the bar together. Ruth imagined owning a scooter, being the type of person who would spend all that money on a scooter just so she wouldn’t have to walk. Self-indulgent. She thought often of being that type of person. The walk was long, and she had a lot of time to think.
Ruth and Polly finally turned the corner into the driveway of the square brick house and went to sit in the backyard, which was big and filled with flowers. There was a good view of the mountains from there, and a few chickens that scratched in the dirt but mostly just sat around. Ruth’s T-shirts and tights hung on a clothesline between two maple trees, and a little shelter with a twig roof stood by the back door. Ruth could eat there in the shade if it ever got too hot out.
She went inside and brought out two plastic chairs, a bunch of red grapes on a paper plate, and a bottle of wine. “Sorry Polly, the wine’s not very good.”
“Don’t worry. We’re all broke here.”
They rolled up their jeans and slouched in their chairs. It was the end of October, but the sky was clear and it was hot in the sun. The neighbours’ horse saw them and snorted its way over to the fence. Ruth sipped on the metallic- tasting wine while Polly rolled some wet grass and dirt into a clump between her palms and tossed it over the fence in a slow underhand arc. The horse lowered its head and ate it.
“My brother rode horses,” Polly said, “when he was a kid. I think my parents gave away all of his equipment after he died. It’s too bad. I could have taken up a new hobby, now that I’m living in the middle of nowhere.”
Ruth didn’t know how the brother had died. She thought that was the kind of information that should be volunteered, and Polly hadn’t volunteered it. But they saw each other every day and Polly talked about him. His name was Pat, and he had carried her to the hospital the night she had the allergic reaction to shellfish. Ruth wondered if she should change her mind. Suppose it’s ruder not to ask? What if Polly thought she didn’t care?
“How did Pat die?”
“He was manic,” Polly said. “He killed himself. I’m the one who found him. Well, I found the cops who found him. They were swarming around outside his apartment, and I happened to pass by. They told me. Then they took me home, and I told my mother.” She snapped grapes from their stems as she talked, and held them in the palm of her hand. She never ate them, just rolled them between her fingers like marbles. “Can you believe that? I was only eighteen. I find out that Pat hanged himself and then the police tell me that I should be the one to tell my parents. I remember standing on the porch with them, and my mother opening the front door, smiling to see me, because she didn’t know yet.”
Ruth didn’t say anything. She felt sweaty and sticky. The horse pawed the ground and pushed against the fence, which creaked. The breeze picked up, and Ruth’s clothes on the line snapped like flags.
“I’m not going home for Christmas,” Ruth said. “Are you?”
“No. My family’s going to Mexico. I disagree with family holidays in Third World countries.”
“Oh. Me too.”
“Why aren’t you going home?”
“I’m Jewish. We don’t care about Christmas.”
“Well, it looks like it’s you and me then.”
Ruth imagined running blind drunk with Polly through the town on Christmas Eve. It would be dark, the middle of the night. They would pull red foil ribbons from the pine trees and laugh. Small-town decorations are so goddamn ugly. They would make noise—stomping boots, breaking bottles, hysterics. I hate it here! they would scream, laughing. Oh god I hate it here! Then they would go back to Polly’s and force down bread and cups of water, spilling everywhere, and fall asleep in puddles on the floor.