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January-February 2017

Coral Joy

New fiction by Becky Blake

Becky Blake@beckyblake_

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At first, it was just a normal Saturday, and by normal, I mean basically nothing was happening. I was lying on the couch in the rec room waiting for my toenails to dry. Metallic Blueberry—that was the name of the colour.

“Hey, Mom,” I called out when she walked by. “Why did you decide to name me Coral Joy?” I’d asked her the same question a million times, and she always just laughed it off. This time she sighed and set down her laundry basket. It almost seemed like she was going to tell me something.

“Did you lose a bet?” I prompted her. “Were you high?” My older siblings’ names were Susan, Steven, and Samuel. If you hung us together on a clothesline we’d look like a row of dress-shirts followed by a hideous poncho.

“I guess it’s time,” my mother said. “You’re a teenager now. You can handle it, right?”

“Of course I can handle it.” Beside me on the floor, Mr. Woofly raised his head.

My mother perched on the end of the couch. She slipped off one of her sandals and compared her toes to mine. “I’m not sure where to begin.”

“At the beginning maybe?”

She frowned. “Yes, I guess that would make sense. Well, when you were born we didn’t have a lot of money. I don’t know if I told you that before.”

I shook my head.

“Your dad wasn’t sick yet, but he wasn’t feeling great, so he had to start working a bit less. We’d just bought this house, and we already had three kids. Maybe you can imagine…things were a little tight.”

“I can imagine.” Things with us were always a little tight.

“Anyway, when I was pregnant with you, I used to go to this particular grocery store. SuperSmart I think it was called…” My mother’s voice trailed off. She was such a slow talker these days! Sometimes it felt like I could watch a whole music video just while she was figuring out what to say.

“So what happened?” I asked.

“Well.” She reached out toward Mr. Woofly and buried her hand in his fur. “One day this woman came up to me in the produce section and asked if I had a name picked out for my baby. I told her that I did. Then she asked me how set I was on that name, and I said ‘Pretty set.’ Then she told me that she’d always wanted to name something.”

I couldn’t believe where this was going. My mother tried to breeze through the next part. “She said she happened to be from a wealthy family and could offer us a large sum of money. At first I thought she was crazy. But then I ran into her again the next week, and she handed me an envelope with a number inside—an amount—and instructions on how to collect it.”

“Waitwaitwait.” I lifted my hands in the air. “Are you saying that someone else named me?”

My mother looked nervous. “I know it sounds strange, but if you think about it, it’s not really such a big deal.”

“I’ll decide if it’s a big deal.” I didn’t know yet if it was or it wasn’t. I stood up. I needed to go to my room. At the bottom of the stairs, I turned.

“How much money?” I asked.

“A lot,” said my mother.

***

Upstairs, I closed my bedroom door. The posters on my walls seemed to be morphing. Instead of pictures of the characters from my favourite shows, they suddenly looked like pictures of just the actors themselves: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Robert Pattinson. Why did I have posters of these random people in my room? Who were they really? Who was I?

COME OVER NOW, I texted Jennica.

Now-now? She wrote back

Yes!

It took her forever to get there. While I was waiting, I snuck down to the kitchen and made pizza-bagels for us, then brought them back up to my room. When Jennica was finally sitting on my bed, I told her my news.

She seemed more interested in her pizza-bagel than in my discovery. I tried to get her attention with a recap. “So, in a way, my parents sold me. I was basically a baby prostitute.”

“Wow.” Jennica wiped a thread of melted cheese from her chin. “That’s so cool! You should totally try to meet her.”

“Who?”

“The lady from the grocery store. Maybe she’ll buy you stuff.”

I hadn’t thought of that. There was a pair of Moksha jeans I wanted so badly I’d been tempted to steal them.

Later that night my mother came into my room to say goodnight. Mr. Woofly padded in behind her. When he’d been a puppy, we’d all come up with suggestions for what to call him. My name had stuck, and ever since, I’d always felt like he was a little more mine than anyone else’s.

“I want to meet my name-mother,” I said.

My other-mother looked surprised. “I’m not sure if she’ll want to meet you, or if she’s even still in the city, but if you want to try to find her, I support that.”

“Good.”

Mr. Woofly jumped up on my bed and lay down.

“So, what’s her name?” I asked.

“Mrs. Maxwell,” my mother said. “I think I still have her number.”

She went out to look for it, and I rolled to face the picture of my dad on the wall. “Did you know about this?” I asked. As usual, he just smiled down at the smaller version of me holding his hand in the photo. Even though it’d been almost a year, I still felt small like that every time I remembered he was gone.

“I found it.” My mother was standing in the doorway with a sheet of notepaper. “We can call her together in the morning.”

***

The greenhouse where Mrs. Maxwell suggested that we meet was in the middle of a busy downtown park. My mother drove me there, and when we arrived, I asked if she’d mind waiting in the car.

“I guess,” she said. “But call me if you need me.” She waggled her phone in my direction.

I was 15 minutes early. I walked through the greenhouse, then sat on a bench just inside the entrance. The smell of dirt made me think of shovels going into the ground. On the other side of the glass wall, happy-looking people were doing regular things: walking their dogs, riding their bikes. No one else was inside the humid greenhouse, waiting.

“Coral Joy?”

I looked up. For some reason, I’d been imagining a tall, pale woman with arched eyebrows and long fingers. A Disney step-mother-type. Instead, Mrs. Maxwell was a short, brown-skinned woman with normal eyebrows and wrinkly, soft-looking fingers. She was wearing glasses and seemed to be pretty old, like 50 maybe.

“Shall I sit down?” Mrs. Maxwell asked.

In movies people sometimes hugged their birthmother, but this was different. I slid over on the bench.

“You’re skinny,” she said. “As a baby, you were chubby.”

“You saw me as a baby?”

“Of course. You can’t name something without seeing what it’s like.”

I thought about this. “So, you saw me and you thought…Coral Joy?”

“Not at first.” She smiled. “At first, I thought you might be a Lucy.”

“A Lucy?” There was an older girl at my school called Lucy. She rode horses and had a boyfriend who was in college. Maybe if I’d been a Lucy, Chris M. wouldn’t have told me to F-off when I’d asked him to be my science partner.

“You thought I was a Lucy? Really?”

“Yes. But then the name Coral came to mind. It’s such a beautiful colour, just like my favourite flower. Hibiscus.” She pointed at a spray of blooms across from us. “See the ones with the big petals? That’s the kind that all the bumblebees love.”

For a second, I felt like maybe I was going to cry. I grabbed a leaf that kept brushing my neck and twisted it away.

“And Joy,” Mrs. Maxwell continued. “That was my mother’s name. I wanted to pass it along to somebody.”

“Is your mother still alive?” Maybe I had a whole other family out there.

“No. Not anymore. She was an amazing woman though. As strong as cast iron. People always said that her name didn’t suit her—that it was too soft for someone who’d been through so much and turned out so tough. But tough and joyful—they can go together. In fact, I think they need to. Do people call you Coral, or Coral Joy?”

“Coral Joy. C.J. sometimes. My dad used to call me that.”

“And what was his name?” Mrs. Maxwell looked at me over her glasses. Like me, she seemed to have some experience with sad things.

“Paul,” I said.

She nodded. We sat in silence for a while.

“So why did you want to name me?” I finally asked.

Mrs. Maxwell stretched out her feet and crossed her ankles. “When I found out I couldn’t have a baby, I made a list of all the things I felt bad about. Things like not giving my mother a grandchild, not knowing what it feels like to be pregnant, not seeing how my blood mixed up with another person’s to make someone new.”

I was suddenly embarrassed for Mrs. Maxwell. It seemed like she’d forgotten that I wasn’t an adult. I didn’t want to interrupt her though.

“There was only one thing on the list I could do something about,” she said, “and that was naming a baby.”

“Did it make you feel better?”

She looked at me. “I think it did.”

I had another question but I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know the answer. “Did I…turn out the way you were expecting?”

Mrs. Maxwell laughed. The sound was so nice I wished I could take it home with me.

“Not exactly,” she said. “I mean, blue toenail polish?”

I looked at my feet. The colour was kind of tacky.

“I’m just teasing.” Mrs. Maxwell reached over and touched my shoulder for a moment. “You’re good. Just the way I was hoping you’d be.”

She stood up.

Again I thought about hugging her, but it didn’t seem quite right. “Thanks for meeting me,” I said.

“Coral Joy, you’re a very polite young lady.”

She walked toward the exit.

“Waitwaitwait,” I called out.

She turned.

I’d been about to tell her she was wrong, that I wasn’t actually polite at all, but then I realized that maybe something had changed and now I was.

“Have a good day,” I said, sweet as anything.

***

My mother was staring out the side window of the car as I walked up. She looked a bit sad, and for a second it seemed like the car was another kind of greenhouse—that the windshield was a glass wall separating her and her slow-moving thoughts from the fast and happy people in the park.

Maybe when we got home, I’d give her a pedicure to cheer her up. I tapped on the window and she unlocked the door.

“How’d it go?” she asked as I settled into the passenger seat.

“Fine. She was nice.”

“Good.” My mother gave me an awkward sidehug, both of us wearing seat belts. When she pulled out of her parking space, we got stuck behind a streetcar right away. My mother was a cautious driver and probably wouldn’t pass. It was going to be a long trip but I didn’t mind. It’d give me time to review everything Mrs. Maxwell had said. I’d forgotten to ask her if there were any other kids she’d named. And also what her own name was. Now I’d have to make something up. It was going to take some time to get it right.

“Hey, Mom. Before you met Mrs. Maxwell, what were you and Dad going to call me?”

My mother put on her blinker to move into the other lane, and it clickclickclicked before she changed her mind and turned it off. “Sarah,” she said. “Sarah Elizabeth.”

“Sarah Elizabeth?”

“I know. It’s hard to imagine now, isn’t it?”

It was. More than ever before, I felt like a Coral Joy. The girl whose troubles would someday make her as strong as cast iron. The girl who all the bumblebees were going to love.

Illustration by Stephanie Singleton.

Becky Blake was the winner of the 2013 CBC Short Story Prize. Her work has appeared in subTerrain, Taddle Creek, Room, Now magazine, DailyXY and enRoute. She currently lives in Toronto where she’s working on a novel about squatters and graffiti artists. Visit her at: www.beckyblake.ca.

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