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November-December 2009

Great Canadian Literary Hunt 2009: Unleashed by Sarah Fletcher

Sarah Fletcher

Editor’s note: We’re posting the winners of the 2009 Great Canadian Literary Hunt to promote the 2010 contest. Look for one new poem and short story each day the rest of this week. Enter today and you could be published in This Magazine, and win a cash prize of $750!

Great Canadian Literary Hunt 2009 - Third Place, FictionGeorgia says her mom put her on a leash when she was four and three quarters, and Georgia never let her forget it. Red leash—four feet long—and a harness with buckles that pinched at the armpits.

Dr. Mann says: it’s the same way for dogs—that poor mutt at the leash-free park who has to stay tied and muzzled. Dogs notice those things too, he says. Nobody wants to be different, Georgia.

fishbowl

Illustration by Ryan Dodgson

Georgia says she never cared much for pets—that bowl full of guppies, black squirmy things Mom had her scoop from the shallow pools in the rocks near the farm in Caledon. Faceless little creatures in a hyper state of wiggle. Georgia would fish in the bucket for them when Mom wasn’t looking and try to squeeze their rubbery bodies between her forefinger and thumb. That cat— Georgia named it Oscar even though it was a girl, which made Mom cringe—those long stares and the terrible smell of its yellow teeth. Cinnamon the hamster. Henry the dog—a small mutt whose white fur was always some shade of brown, who came to stay one summer when Aunt Catherine went to India to find herself but instead found a slip of a man also named Henry with sharp bones and baked skin and a mouthful of chewing tobacco. There was the white rat with the red eyes—of all of them, Georgia minded the rat the least.

Dr. Mann says: that might be something to look into.

Georgia says: not much to see.

Dr. Mann says: tell me more about Henry.

Georgia says: Henry the man hated Henry the dog, and Mom hated them both.

Dr. Mann says: why?

Georgia says: too fucking needy.

Dr. Mann says: like your father?

Georgia says: I don’t think he needed anyone. Henry picked his teeth right at the table. He told stories about poor people with no legs and one eye that made Aunt Catherine sigh and say, I know I know. Mom would say, that’s enough, Henry. He smelled liked the laundry hamper—like week-old nighties and single balled-up socks. He liked to touch Georgia’s face when he talked to her and would say things like, you haven’t had it easy, kid. Georgia liked the black splats of tobacco on their driveway.

Aunt Catherine and Henry brought warm beer and loaves of bread when they’d come for dinner on Sundays. Henry sneaked Georgia quick sips when no one was looking. The bread was always sweet and dotted with herbs and congealed bits of cheese and Aunt Catherine would smile and say, Henry makes it himself.

Mom would say, well isn’t that nice.

Dr. Mann says: you and Henry were close then.

Georgia says: he was okay.

Dr. Mann says: how long was he with your family?

Georgia says: about a year.

Dr. Mann says: and then?

Georgia says: he got run over by a bus.

Dr. Mann says: you mean the dog?

Georgia says: no—the dog ran away. Georgia says the farm near Caledon wasn’t really a farm but that Mom liked to call it that because cottage sounded too ordinary. Mom liked to be different. The field in the back had long grass that was scratchy on Georgia’s bare summer legs. The mosquitoes were thick before dusk and Georgia would hold her arms out to her side and watch them land until she just couldn’t take it. She’d mark the bites later with her fingernail—an X in each one like Martin Ross showed her, but it never helped the itch like he said.

Dr. Mann says: who was Martin Ross?

Georgia says: the boy next door.

Dr. Mann says: he was a friend?

Georgia says: I think so.

Dr. Mann says: what does that mean?

Georgia says: it means he wasn’t scared of me.

Dr. Mann says: why would he be scared?

Georgia says she caught a guppy in the bucket only once. She squeezed and squeezed until it popped like a fat blueberry in her hand. Martin Ross told her he stepped on his goldfish once when it jumped from the tank and he liked the way it felt and did she like it too.

Dr. Mann says: did you?

Georgia says: well what do you think? Martin Ross showed Georgia how to pluck the legs off a daddy-long-legs until it was nothing but body. Georgia says their home on Elm Avenue was the narrowest house on the block. Grey brick and brass numbers—three three three. The magnolia on the front lawn dropped big petals in August and they would get brown and stinky on the path. Georgia’s room had an orange carpet and a skylight and an air conditioner that she liked to run even mid-winter. The rattle and purr helped muffle the noise from the next room. Dr. Mann says: what noise?

Sometimes she hid in the closet behind the hangers of clothing—like a curtain she wished was long enough to cover her legs too.

Dr. Mann says: what noise, Georgia?

Georgia says she never told Mom about the time she got a zap from the outlet in her room. She had her finger on the prongs as she plugged in her ghetto blaster. Like a cold shot to her insides. She got on her bike and pedalled with wobbly legs right down Crescent Hill and straight into a telephone pole. She didn’t tell Mom about that either.

Dr. Mann says: why?

Georgia says: why would I? It didn’t hurt that much. Mom had a doll collection she kept in the living room along with her baby grand and records. Georgia liked the one with the red hair because her left eyelid never opened all the way no matter how many times you rocked her up and down. Sowmetimes Georgia liked to do the same thing with her own eyes, drop one lid down and shoot glassy stares at herself in the mirror. She’d try to mimic its pink pout but her lips were too thin. The dolls and piano weren’t for playing, but sometimes Mom let Georgia dance in her socks to Ruby Tuesday and Paint It Black for a treat. The living room was stiff-backed couches and dishes of potpourri. Family photos on the mantle: Dad and Georgia on the boat, Dad and Georgia in the pool, Dad and Georgia in the thick of the summer with shirts off and pants hiked up. The deep flush of red paint on the walls, and sometimes Georgia wished she could paint them black.

Dr. Mann says: so she kept his photos out. That’s interesting.

Georgia says: is it?

Georgia says Martin Ross didn’t like to come inside because he said Georgia’s house felt funny. In the morning before school he’d wait for her on the sidewalk.

Dr. Mann says: funny how? Georgia says: what? Martin Ross walked her home from school too. He only asked her about it once. Dr. Mann says: what did you tell him? Georgia says: not much. Sometimes Aunt Catherine took Georgia on the weekends if Mom was still wearing her bathrobe when the Friday evening news came on. Her house smelled smoky and sweet and she had Mexican blankets covering all the furniture. Aunt Catherine always had boyfriends— Andrew with the long hair like a girl and Neil with the harelip scar that made him look like he was always smirking and Fred with the nice car and dark suit and shoes that clicked against the floor. And Henry, before he got plowed by that bus on Fourth Street—Georgia watched him move his head between Aunt Catherine’s legs one night when they drank a whole case of beer and left the bedroom door open halfway. Aunt Catherine’s thighs were creamy and wide and she bucked when he pushed his face between them. Henry held the bulge of skin around her middle in his fists. Georgia liked the way his brown skin looked against the sheets and watched for the dark bits of his crotch. Aunt Catherine screamed, get out get out, when she saw Georgia at the door. Henry kept his face buried and said something that got muffled by her mess of flesh and hair.

Dr. Mann says: did that frighten you?

Georgia says: why would it? Georgia killed Cinnamon—dropped the cage and broke the hamster’s back. Its fur was damp.

Dr. Mann says: accidents happen.

Georgia says: do they? Georgia says she watched Martin Ross run through the sliding glass doors to their backyard on her eighth birthday. Mom had cleaned them so well before the party with her yellow rubber gloves and wads of blue windexed paper towel that Martin Ross crashed through them face first like they weren’t even there. Pink balloons on the fence, streamers in the hedge, and Martin Ross face up on the deck and stuck full of glass. Georgia wondered what Mom did to get rid of all that blood.

Dr. Mann says: you mean Martin’s blood.

Georgia says: sure. Georgia kissed Martin Ross once in the basement. Big saggy couches. TV that changed channels with a knob. Crayon scratches on the stucco walls that Mom said Georgia made after that thing with Dad. Martin Ross closed his eyes when she kissed him and said, it’s harder than it looks. His lips felt firm like rubber. Georgia wondered what his scars tasted like—thick pink criss-crosses on his cheeks and chin, big ugly things that made most people squint. Georgia said, can I kiss them? And then—they taste like something I know.

Dr. Mann says: what did you mean?

Georgia says: I don’t know. Dr. Mann says: did you show him yours? Mom gave Georgia her own little plot in the backyard garden—helped her push pansies and daisies into the soil. Georgia had a watering can and trowel. Georgia liked the word trowel. Mom buried Cinnamon beside the rose bushes like it was an everyday thing to do. Georgia liked to imagine that’s where they put Henry after they picked his parts off the pavement. She thought about the smooshed guppy and how she wiped it from her fingers on the rock.

Dr. Mann wants to talk about the time Georgia asked Mom to call her George.

Georgia wanted a crossbow for Christmas and put it on her list. Robin Hood would have been cooler with a crossbow. Martin Ross and his Super Soaker would be no match for a crossbow. Mom said, too dangerous, so a Cabbage Patch doll instead. But Georgia was too old for Cabbage Patch dolls, their pudgy fingers and cheeks, big belly buttons that really did look like buttons, that tangle of wool hair. Elizabeth was five—the birth certificate said. Georgia hated her plastic face.

Sometimes Georgia thought Mom liked Christmas more than she did. Big pile of presents every year under the tree. Stockings at the foot of the bed. A tangerine near the toe. Chocolate that tasted like oranges. Candy canes that tasted like cherries. Cherries covered in chocolate. Socks that were thick like slippers. Georgia took secret pleasure in hearing Mom stumbling around her room at four in the morning, tripping over the jeans Georgia left on purpose by the door, swearing—shit—and smelling of something sharp and familiar.

Dr. Mann says: what did your father smell like?

Georgia says Mom was fat—really fat, and that she took pleasure in that too. The way the couch sighed beneath her, her pigeon-toed steps, the swoosh of her thighs. The time she wore that wicker hat that looked like a flowerpot and everyone laughed.

Dr. Mann says: what did you have to eat today?

Georgia says: that’s not the fucking point. Georgia never liked piano lessons on Tuesdays or ballet classes on Sunday mornings. Ballet slippers made her feet smell musty and Mrs. Arnold scolded her for long fingernails and for leaving inky prints on the keys. Fur Elise. Flur Delise. Flurd Elize.

Dr. Mann says: she was trying to keep you busy. Busy is good. Right?

Georgia didn’t like soccer either. Or softball or jazz. She didn’t like the group sessions on Wednesdays either and one time on the way there, with Mom on the streetcar platform at St. Clair West, Georgia yelled, I don’t want to talk about it anymore.

Dr. Mann says: talk about what?

Georgia says: I don’t want to talk about it. Mom didn’t like to have guests at the farm, but sometimes Aunt Catherine would drive up anyway without calling first. She’d open the door and say, here I am, and chase Mom around the kitchen for a hug. Mom didn’t like to get hugs. Before Henry was dead he came up sometimes too and made them curry for dinner which Mom said made her mouth sting.

Henry kissed Georgia on the lips in the long grass when he found her curled up and sleeping with red ants running on her legs. His beard was scratchy like the grass and Georgia wanted to rub it against the bites around her ankles.

Dr. Mann says: he kissed you?

Georgia says: it wasn’t like that.

Dr. Mann says: like what? Henry held Georgia and Georgia slept.

Georgia says: I don’t think I want to come here anymore.

Dr. Mann says: time’s up—I’ll see you next week.

Sarah Fletcher is a Toronto-based writer who is working toward completing her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. She is a two-time Short Grain Award winner for non-fiction. Her short fiction has been published in Exile Quarterly.

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