The year I turn nine we drive up north in daddy’s Oldsmobile to see his brother Lester marry a girl named Lulu. “She’s a lulu, alright,” mama says and daddy wants to know what the hell that’s supposed to mean.
I sit in the backseat with my sister Gail, who says she’s too old for stupid sappy songs, and sing There’s a Hole in My Bucket until mama says will you shut up already. She grabs a tin from the dashboard, hands it to me.
“Eat this,” she says.
The tin is warm from the sun and the milk chocolate fingers inside are melted gooey blobs that smell like plastic.
Gail worries about her figure but I eat every one of them.
The heat in the car makes the rubber and Chantilly and dirty carpet smell stronger than usual. Mama and daddy smoke and the sun blasts through my window and burns my arm and my knees; I’d like to open it but we’re not allowed to open a window because it would destroy mama’s hair. I can feel the blobs of chocolate lying on top of each other in my hot stomach, they don’t seem to know where to go from there. I tell mama I don’t feel well. She says we’re almost at Lester’s.
When I’m sick mama says it serves me right for eating like a pig and that I have ruined the day and possibly the wedding because the Oldsmobile was supposed to take Lulu to the church or had I forgotten. Daddy yells at mama and she yells back and he stops on the side of the road and wipes my clothes and my legs and takes the worst of it off the backseat and Gail and I sit on a rock and when cars go by I’m sure they know I’m a pig who has made a mess and ruined the day and mama sits on another rock and smokes.
Lulu looks nothing like mama. She’s short and round with a ponytail that hangs down past her shoulders like used pieces of brown string. Mama is all bones and hard edges; her hair, which every month Gail helps her turn Sultry-Sable-Black, is teased and lacquered; she has red lips and red nails filed to points that she uses to pretend she’s a lion — roaring showing her claws — I’m supposed to be the lion tamer but I don’t like this game, I don’t know what to do and that always makes the lion angry. It scratches my arm. Once it bled. She said don’t get any on the rug.
Lulu’s head is too small for her body and when she tries to cross her legs the top one sticks straight out so you can see the bottom of her bare foot, cracked, like dirt without rain.
Don’t take this personal, mama says, but have you put on weight? and Lulu says maybe she has and mama says she’s not saying it’s unattractive or anything, she was just inquiring is all and Lulu says personally she’d be happy to lose a ton but the first place it goes is her boobs and that would kill Lester.
“He said as much,” she tells us. “He said he’d rather find me dead in the bathtub than for me to lose weight on my boobs. He said he doesn’t care how big I get as long as the boobs keep getting bigger too, can you believe it?” She snorts when she laughs.
The living room is warm and smells of smoke and diapers and milk. The TV is on, and the radio, and two children, Lily, the baby, and Little Lester, who is almost three, play on grey linoleum with chalk and colouring books. An ironing board leans against the wall next to a white plastic potty, almost full with pee.
“Where the hell are my manners?” Lulu says, handing Lily over to mama who has taken a seat beside a pile of laundry. “You guys want somethin’ to drink?”
Gail and I say yes please and she picks up the potty, takes it to the kitchen and we look at each other. Gail’s eyes are huge and her mouth is open. When Lulu returns she’s carrying two bottles of ginger ale plus the empty potty which she puts back on the floor.
We sit watching the TV and listening to the radio and then Little Lester pulls down his pants and sits on the potty awhile. When he gets up there’s a red ring on his bum and a mound of mushy poo. He pulls up his pants, sits back down on the floor and Lulu has a fit—is he some kind of an animal or what, she screams, and he starts crying and hollering and she tells him get your stinking little turd ass over here and she yanks down his pants, takes some Kentucky Fried Chicken napkins from the coffee table, wipes his bum, tells him to pull up his pants, put the napkins in the potty and park himself and shut up and don’t be so ignorant when we have company!
She sits back then and crosses her leg, tells us he doesn’t usually forget to wipe his bum like that.
“Must be all the excitement,” she says. She snorts a little, smiles, shakes her head. “Kids, eh?”
Lulu’s brothers, Rob and Eddie, come over for supper. Rob is tall and red-headed and works at the mill and Eddie, who is the same shape as Lulu and even has the same long thin ponytail, is a minister.
“Not the kind that marries people,” Lulu explains. Daddy says what the hell other kind is there and Lulu tells him that Eddie, who we should by rights call Reverend Eddie, is a healer. “He can talk to somebody over the phone and cure them of cancer.”
Daddy says horse-shit, then opens another beer. He swats a fly buzzing around his head and mama says does he know that fruit flies are attracted to people who have cirrhosis of the liver and daddy says, “Is that right? Well for your information it’s not a fruit fly, Marguerite, it’s a goddamned house fly, and did you know that house flies are attracted to men who are married to women who hardly ever shut the Christ up for five minutes?”
The Reverend Eddie roars.
After supper the men go over to the Royal Hotel in Rob’s new yellow convertible while the girls stay home and make pink toilet-paper flowers to decorate the Oldsmobile which Lulu says doesn’t bother her if it smells of sick, so does Lester’s truck.
At the wedding mama dances with Rob and slaps his arm, throws her head back when she laughs and Rob shoves up close and they keep right on dancing even during the numbers when other people sit down. Daddy and Lester stand by the bar while Gail helps Lulu paint her fingernails Tangerine Dream to match her going-away outfit. I’m alone when the Reverend Eddie comes over.
“You got B.O. or somethin’?” He laughs, grabs my arm. “C’mon, let’s dance.”
His breath smells and I say no thanks and he wants to know how I can refuse the lord — don’t I know that refusing him is the same as refusing the lord, and I say well, okay then, and he pushes me onto the dance floor for a slow song and shoves up so close my face is touching his sweaty shirt, then he shoves up even closer and I try to move away but he holds me tight and rubs himself into me and I feel something. There is something bumpy and it presses against my ribs. I look around but no one seems to notice me dancing with the lord.
When the music stops he lets go, tells me I’m a very good dancer, says let’s dance again and I say I have to go to the bathroom and he tells me little girls shouldn’t lie. I squeeze my bladder in this way I have to check if it’s full, and it is. I wonder how the lord got this very simple thing wrong. He says we’ll wait for another slow song, let’s sit down in the meantime, and he walks to the back of the room near the coat racks. Sit on my lap, he says, which I do but I have trouble keeping balance. He puts his hands under my dress, grabs my bottom, steadies me. Isn’t that better, he laughs. I feel the fingers of his left hand, and then his whole sweaty palm, pressing on my bare leg and then I feel his skin peel away from mine and his hand goes into my underpants. The lord has his left hand inside my underpants, wiggling his fingers all over, and I don’t know what to do.
I hold my breath so hard my ears ache. Then he pushes me off his lap suddenly and stands up. “Christ!” he says. “You goddamn brat!” He spits on me, leaves through the back door and I’m standing there alone a few minutes before I notice my bladder is no longer full.
There’s a good chance I’ve peed on the lord.
I pray he won’t tell anyone.
On a Friday in October I’m coming home from school when I see mama walk out our front door. The air fills with Chantilly as she passes then disappears into a yellow car waiting at the curb . She’s carrying a suitcase and doesn’t say a word.
When daddy gets home he punches a hole in his bedroom door then drives the Oldsmobile to the Brewers’ Retail.
Gail tapes a rainbow picture over the hole, tells me don’t worry, she’ll take care of us. She pulls money from daddy’s wallet, walks to the Dominion for macaroni and eggs, cans of fruit cocktail; she vacuums on Saturdays, doesn’t have time for schoolwork. Every night daddy comes home yelling about the arseholes at the drain factory then falls asleep on the couch in his underwear.
Gail says she’s the only one who understands him.
“It’s alright, daddy,” she says. “I’ll put the television on for you, here’s your beer and your cigarettes, another glass of whiskey, I’ll leave you some chips, barbecue, your favourite.”
Sometimes he cries, wipes his face with the front of his undershirt, says she’s a good girl, he doesn’t deserve her.
When he blows his nose her eyes light up.
At Christmas there’s a box marked ‘Jolene’ on the floor where the tree would be if we had one. It looks like Gail’s writing. I open it — cherry-filled chocolates, my favourite. There’s only one other present, a small package wrapped in blue paper marked ‘Daddy.’ When he gets up we yell Merry Christmas and Gail gives him the package and he stands there starting at it awhile — then he says holy shit and takes it back to the bedroom and from behind the closed door we hear him: holy shit…holy shit…holy shit…
Gail looks at me and shrugs. “It’s only socks,” she says.
The year I turn ten Lester dies. I assume Lulu’s boobs have finally shrunk and it’s killed him as she always knew it would, but it turns out he drowned on a fishing trip. Lulu asks can she come stay with us awhile, maybe she can help out. Daddy says if she’s casting her net she can bloody well cast in some other direction, but he lets her come and I move into Gail’s bedroom and Lily and Little Lester move into mine and Lulu takes daddy’s room and daddy sleeps on the couch until one morning I see him coming out of Lulu’s room and he says, “You got a problem, Jolene?” and after that he and Lulu sleep behind the taped-up rainbow picture every night and nobody sleeps on the couch.
Lulu makes meatball stew and mashed potatoes swimming in margarine and Cool Whip salads. She buys giant bags of cheesies and cases of ginger ale. Gail worries we’ll soon be poor at this rate, and every one of us as fat as Lulu.
Daddy says he’s never eaten better and pats his stomach and Lulu’s behind after every meal.
Gail doesn’t clean on Saturdays anymore. She goes to the plaza with new friends who smoke behind Zellers and takes clothes into the change rooms to steal under their regular clothes. At night boys tap on our bedroom window and she orders me to scram; if I tell, I’m history, she says.
The house is filling up with dirty laundry and dishes and bottles and toys and queen-size pantyhose and once Lulu and daddy have taken their place in the living room there’s nowhere to sit. Daddy says what’s wrong with the floor and I clear a spot for myself where I can eat and do my homework until one day I get home from school and a white plastic pee pot has taken my place.
When daddy finds out about the boys in our bedroom he shoves Gail up against the living room wall, yells she’s acting like a whore. Gail yells back she thought daddy liked whores. I’m in the kitchen pulling out strands of my hair which is something I’ve started to do, I don’t know why. I lay each strand upon the other, making a neat pile and when I’m done I put them in the garbage.
I hear a lamp break and Gail is yelling something else now, something about knocking up that fat cow, and daddy tells her she’s welcome to get the hell out if it doesn’t suit her and Gail says fine then stomps toward the kitchen and I collect my hairs so she won’t see.
The baby, Dwayne, is born on Christmas Eve which Lulu marks as significant.
“A god-sanctioned birth” is how the Reverend Eddie puts it when he drops by with a mickey of rye to wet his nephew’s head.
By New Year’s Eve the Reverend is gone and so is Gail. She leaves a note in our room saying she’s going to Vancouver, she’ll write to me when she gets an apartment and a job, and maybe I can join her out there one day. She loves me, she says.
The year I turn eleven everything is normal.