By Terri Favro
I found the first one spread-eagled on a sack of organic potatoes –– one of those dolls with a ring that you pull to make it baby-talk. Only, it didn’t look like a baby. Its skin was the colour of grubby Band-Aids, the body stitched into a tight-assed skirt with a flounced hem, like one of those dancers from Portugal or Greece or wherever. When I picked it up, the eyes floated open, glared at me, then snapped shut. I pulled the ring and a string zipped out like a fishing line.
But instead of going I love you mommy or change my diaper, a little voice said: After all we do for her, she turns into a goddamn Beatnik.
I dropped the doll and ran upstairs.
Mommi was sitting at the kitchen table, picking at the raspberry date squares that her best-friend-slash-therapist Bridget had brought from the farmer’s market. While Bridget was in the hallway, head down, whispering urgently into her phone, Mommi dreamily divided and subdivided crumbs into lines with the side of her hand as if getting ready to snort them. The red blotch above her breast was not heaving up and down, for a change. The blotch had been a tattoo of a little spider –– a tarantula, really –– that looked like it was crawling out of her bra on its way up to her throat. The tattoo was out of sync with her current psycho-demographic cluster, so Mommi had it lasered off, even though it had been crawling on her skin for, like, thirty years.
I dropped into a chair. “There’s a doll in the cold room. It talked.”
“What’d she say?” asked Mommi, still playing with the crumbs.
“Something about being a goddamn beatnik.”
Bridget appeared at the door, a long white ear worm connecting her to her phone, so she could keep sucking billable hours out of clients in Toronto. “What’s up?”
“Courtney found a Chatty Cathy downstairs.”
Bridget gave what Mommi calls her judging look. “Come on, Tamerie.” Then her phone rang again.
With Bridget back in the hallway, Mommi turned to me. “Courtney, go get that doll.”
I slumped back to the basement door. The steps down were as steep as a hiking trail. I held my breath against the fuggy smell of rotting grapes, left over from the olden days. Someone used to make wine down there. Mommi said Euro Traditionals must have lived here, once.
The stinky old wine barrels are gone now. Pop called a Blues in Motion guy to haul them away, along with a bunch of life-size plaster statues: a bare-chested hippie holding a griddle, a monk with a baby, a blonde stepping on a snake, a girl with two eyes on a plate.
The Blues in Motion took away the barrels and sold them to an antiquer for twice what Pop paid in haulage fees. He wouldn’t touch the statues, though, leaving Pop to wrestle their crumbly bodies up the stairs. My older sister Madison told us who they were: Saint Lawrence, Saint Anthony, Mary Queen of the World, and Saint Lucy.
Pop frowned at the guy-saint. What the hell is this one doing with a waffle iron? The Romans cooked him to death on it, Madison explained.
She knows stuff like that because she reads a lot. Our real Dad was a famous dead Canadian alcoholic junkie boxer cowboy poet, Fraser ‘Duff’ Mackenzie. He won the Governor-General Award for a poetry collection called Ice. All about the majesty of the disappearing North, blah, blah, blah. He also wrote about lumberjacks, factory workers, truck drivers, bartenders. My favourite poem by Duff is about a guy who gets decapitated in a stamping machine.
Mommi met Duff in the days when he was living over a bar, doing poetry readings, cadging drinks and picking fights. Madison thinks she slept with him mostly because she wanted to be a poet herself and hoped that Duff would help her. But as my sister says, What Urban Bohemian gives her kid a New Age Suburban mall rat name like Madison? She refers to herself as ‘Maddy’ and tells everyone it’s short for Madéleine.
Madison is big like Duff, an Amazon when she exercises, but too easily running to fat (Mommi says) whens she slacks off. Me, I’m like Mommi, petite and redheaded. She says Madison got all the surly genes and I got the glamour ones. Lucky me.
In the end, Mommi touched up the saints with paint and set them along the driveway that snakes from our house to the concession road. Now every time you drive to Toronto, you’ll feel like you’re on a pilgrimage, she told Pop.
Pop thought the Euro Traditionals built the cold room but the Blues in Motion guy said No way, it’s part of the original house. He explained that survival used to depend on preserving enough food to get through the long, hard winter. That’s why all the farmhouses have a cold room, a sort of bricked-up closet that we’ve filled with Mommi’s put-up fruits and veggies and shit.
No windows. No heat, of course. And now, no Chatty Cathy. All I found on the potato sack was a dusting of grit.
When I went back upstairs, Bridget and Mommi were knocking back glasses of Cab Merlot. By the time they’d put dinner together, and Pop had arrived from the city, and Bridget had opened another bottle of organic red, Beatnik Chatty Cathy had been forgotten.
We’ve only had a cold room for two years. That’s when Mommi had her Fall From Grace and we moved to Bramborough, about two hours from Toronto. Don’t bother googling it. Bramborough’s been gobbled up by a bigger town. Some of our neighbours have bumper stickers reading PROUD BRAMBOROUGHITE! Mommi stuck one on her Volvo, even though we got here after Bramborough had technically disappeared.
Mommi used to be a graphic designer at one of Canada’s top ten creative boutiques, until her boss found her under her desk one day. He thought she’d had a stroke or heart attack –– something stress related, i.e., respectable. But when they took her to Emerg, they said she’d passed out from a combination of Ritalin, cocaine and alcohol. Broke her knee in the fall. Her boss visited her in the hospital and presented her with an arrangement of anthuriums and a Package. Madison explained to me that a Package means you’re toast: All she’s good for now is working as a volunteer crossing guard. Which wasn’t actually true. Crossing guards have to pass a police check. In the year leading up to her Fall From Grace, Mommi had been up on shoplifting charges twice: once for pocketing a lipstick, the second time for sticking a canned ham under her topcoat. You might expect that from an Urban Bohemian but by then Mommi had been a hard-working Sushi & Shiraz, going on twenty years.
A warning sign, Pop admitted later.
Pop bought the century house at an estate auction to give Mommi a fresh start. She had the interior painted in Leaf, Surf and Daybreak. Although the house has six bedrooms, Madison and I shared a room, like always. Madison wanted to paint it Midnight but I voted for Sunflower. I won.
Mommi ArtShopped and HomeSensed the other rooms, filling them with antiques and bolsters and shit, and told us to invite our friends over. What friends? asked Madison.
The wood floors were stained Oxblood, which made crossing the hall feel like walking through a crime scene. The sanding and staining was done by a young Blues in Motion who worked with his shirt off and blasted Nine Inch Nails. We nicknamed him Muscles.
Once, Madison and I were outside admiring the driveway saints when Muscles drove up in his truck. Wanna go for a ride? he asked, looking straight at Madison. It was like I didn’t exist, which hurt, me being the cute one and all.
Madison ran around to the passenger door and hopped in too fast for me to follow. Then the truck tore off toward the concession road, leaving me with Mommi.
That evening I was looking out our bedroom window when I saw Muscles’ truck pull up in front of the house and stop in a shady spot near St. Lucy. It was getting dark but I could see what they were doing. Like in that kids’ rhyme:
Muscles and Madison parked by a tree,K-I-S-S-I-N-G.
Madison left for the University of Calgary this past September. She told Pop that she wanted Calgary because it has a hot anthropology department. Privately, she told me that she wanted to get far away from Mommi.
But she’s getting better, I pointed out.
Madison started peeling enamel from one thumb, something she does when she’s troubled. Remember Muscles? Mommi slept with him.
No way! I said, although I was pretty sure she was right. Mommi had been dreamy and disheveled the whole time the floors were being done.
How do you know?
I came home early and heard Nine Inch Nails coming out of her room. Then I saw Muscles coming out, zipping his pants. I was so humiliated. She knew that I kind of liked him. And she slept with him anyway! She’s a fucking bitch, Courtney.
Yeah, I admitted.
Since Madison left and Pop spends most of the week in the city running an environmentally friendly dry cleaning chain (Green Clean™, maybe you’ve heard of it), it’s mostly just Mommi and me creaking around the house unless Bridget stops by to renew one of Mommi’s prescriptions.
One morning, I got into the car with Mommi for the drive to school. She was sitting there staring out of the windshield as though she didn’t see me.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yes. No. Do you have to go to school today?”
“There’s a test.”
“I’ll write you a note.”
“But I studied!”
“Look: I’m having a bad day. I’ve been thinking about how I screwed things up with Madison.” Mommi’s lipstick made her mouth look blobby. I could see the ghost of the old tattoo pulsing up and down, up and down, above the edge of her tee shirt.
“We can make cookies together!”
I sighed and got out of the car. Back in the house, I tossed my coat on the floor but Mommi didn’t say anything. Then I sat at the kitchen island and watched her get out the flour and Chip-Its and butter and shit.
“Don’t make too many. I won’t want any,” I told her, hoping I sounded as pissedoff as I felt.
“You will, once you smell them baking,” she said, bright and motherly as hell. She took the stick of cold butter and threw it into a big ceramic bowl, then went at it with a pastry cutter. She was trying to cream it. Which would take, like, about a week, the butter was so hard.
“Melt, you fucker,” she kept saying under her breath.
“I don’t think that’s how you’re supposed to do it,” I said. “You really have no idea how to bake cookies, do you?”
Mommi threw the pastry cutter across the room. Then she sat down and put her head in her hands. I watched her have a little cry. Eventually she stopped and got out the electric beaters and creamed the hell out of the butter, baked the cookies and ate all of them herself. Afterwards, I curled up beside her in bed. When I woke up the next morning, she was sleeping so heavily that I went out onto the concession road myself to catch the school bus. I was standing at the end of the driveway but the bus whipped right by. I glimpsed the Bicycles & Bookbags through the bus windows, bouncing in their seats. I wanted to be with them so badly, it made my stomach hurt. I trudged back up to the house under the watchful eyes of the driveway saints. Bare-chested St. Lawrence gave me a little nod and a shy smile that reminded me of Muscles. Mary Queen of the World extended an open hand as if trying to high-five me. I put my head down and kept going.
Inside, Mommi was still sprawled in bed, snoring. High on Chip-Its. I sat in the kitchen amidst the crumbs from yesterday’s cookie orgy. I tried calling Madison but her phone just rang and rang and rang. I ended up reading a magazine full of parenting advice with a bloated pastel cake on the cover and a headline screaming ARE YOUR KIDS OK? 20 TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS! It read like a communication from Jupiter.
Christmas came and went with Madison spending most of her break in Toronto. She bussed to Bramborough on Christmas Eve and ate Mommi’s dust-dry turkey in silence. She’d lost, like, twenty pounds. You look awesome! I said but she just shrugged and mumbled, At least I’ve got friends now. She dumped her suitcase on my bed and unloaded so much stuff, I didn’t have room to sleep.
What do you think you’re doing? I said. It was the shittiest Christmas ever.
On Boxing Day, Mommi sent me to the cold cellar to check on our onion supply. Beatnik Chatty Cathy was back. This time, though, she was a flesh-and-blood girl. About Madison’s age. She had long straight black hair, spidery eyelashes and black leggings.
“Hello Daddy-O,” she said, snapping her fingers.
“What happened to your dress?” I asked. “Is this how you really look?”
“I looked like this the last time they saw me,” said Beatnik Chatty Cathy, pulling out a pack of cigarettes. “I’m about seventy now, dragging around one of those oxygen tanks ‘cause of the emphysema. Blows my mind.”
“How come sometimes you’re a doll and sometimes you’re real?”
“The doll lived in the house longer than I did. That’s pretty ‘real’. Real as you. Strictly squaresville. You got a fancy doll and put it on the living room couch to admire, while you keep your teenage daughter hidden away because she’s possessed by the devil.”
“Why’d they think that?”
“I cut up my first communion dress. Among other things.” She lit another cigarette off the butt of the first one. “A presto, honey!”
I left her there, smoking Marlborough Lights on the potatoes. One of the things that Mommi did in Bramborough was to join a book club. The members were called Richard, Linda, Susan, Janet, Doug, Ann and Barbara. No one my age has names like the book club people. Not one. I’ve never met a Doug, Susan or Janet who wasn’t Mommi’s age. They were all good people. I mean, they’d bring Mommi a bottle of Cab-Merlot, or a book that just got great reviews, or comp tickets for the Shaw Festival. They never brought her E, or expired Vicodin, or coke, or baggies of weed, as some of her social contacts in Toronto did. Which was why the Bramborough Book Club was fine by me. This particular Sunday they were paying homage to Mommi by reading Ice by Duff Mackenzie; the book clubbers were impressed that Mommi had been Duff’s inamorata. I stood unnoticed in the kitchen doorway, watching Janet help Mommi prepare the appetizers. Janet put her arm around Mommi’s waist.
“How you doing, Tamerie? Still missing Madison?”
Mommi’s mouth turned all rubbery, the way it does when she’s going to cry. But she just rubbed the back of her hand across her face.
“Courtney helps me cope. Although Bridget says it’s backsliding.” Janet’s face wrinkled up like a bloodhound’s, as if she didn’t know what Mommi was talking about. “Who’s ‘Courtney’?”
Mommi bent down again to slide a tray of canapés out of the oven. “Madison heard the name in a movie. When you’re a lonely kid, you make up your own friends, you know? Even little sisters. The pediatrician said it was normal. But then Madison went out west for school and Courtney got left behind. By then I believed in her as much as Madison did. Courtney’s a comfort. At least, for now.”
Janet lifted her glass of wine at Mommi. “Whatever gets you through the night, Tamerie.”
Mommi clinked her glass on Janet’s. “And Oxy withdrawal.”
I felt all thin and shivery and sort of throw-uppy inside. That’s why the bus would never stop for me. Why the school board never bugged Mommi about my absences.
I’m the imaginary daughter. Just add cookie dough and stir!
My life –– if I can call it that –– depended on Madison’s loneliness. And Madison, for the first time, had real friends. For all I know, I might be nothing more now than a side effect of Mommi’s painkillers. Feeling dizzied by this awareness of my own non-self, I sat through the book club meeting until they started discussing Duff’s use of underground imagery. I’d heard about this in grade ten English. Even wrote a paper about it. Or maybe I helped Madison write it. I was no longer sure what happened to her and what happened to me.
While they were still chatting and lapping up the wine, I went down to the cold room. For a change, it held only fruits and vegetables. I leaned back against the sacks of potatoes and wrapped my arms around my legs. Hoping for someone to show up and keep me company. My mother when she was a wild and carefree Urban Bohemian. Madison, when she was little and still played with me. Even Beatnik Chatty Cathy or the driveway saints would have been cool by me.
The overhead light made a sizzling sound. In the dimness I could sense the slow dying of the fruits and vegetables around me. Even the preserves in their baths of Certo would decay, eventually. Like everything else that came out of the cold room, I had helped my family get through a long, hard winter.
My purpose served, the lights winked out.
Terri Favro is a Toronto copywriter, fiction writer and comic book collaborator. Her writing has appeared in Geist, Lies With Occasional Truth, Prism and other Canadian lit mags and sites. Her novella “The Proxy Bride” was published by Quattro Books and comic book “Bella” was published by Grey Borders Books, both in 2012. Terri spent a day with Milton Acorn in 1979 and has been dining out on it ever since. She blogs at terrifavro.ca