Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Fiction #32: Lucile Barker

Birther

I could have killed Evan for the boat accident, but part of it was my fault for letting him take out a twelve foot flat bottomed rowing canoe in five foot waves.

For the first few days after the accident, I didn’t want to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I was back in the warm too high waves, the oars under my arms so that they couldn’t float away.

“The seats, the generator, the motor, the cooler,” he moaned to all his neighbours, who could see my increasing lack of sympathy.

I had my own list, including the salmon mousse and the expensive smoked pork hock from the out-of-town deli. And my wallet, driver’s license, health card, my USB stick (which had been backed up on a CD the day before), several absolutely for sure winning lottery and raffle tickets, including one for a rainbow-hued afghan that I had lusted after at the Fergus Truck Show, and business cards with e-mails for people I might never see in the flesh again.

As the week progressed, the list got longer and more expensive. I began to remember why Evan was an ex-husband.

The nightmares became worse and started to mix in with old ones when I had been trapped in my school locker in grade ten. Now I was back in the locker but it was filling up with water and rocking. Maybe it was time to get rid of the water bed.

“Ya wanna come to Cuba this winter?” my best friend, Annabelle, asked.

“Maybe,” I said, ever though I knew I really couldn’t afford it. “But I gotta get a passport.”

There, I had my excuse.

“I will spring for your passport,” Annabelle said. “I got a huge hunk of extra vacation pay.”

“Desperate women,” I said. “Maybe this time we’ll behave.”

Once, long ago, we had gone off on a trip where she had met a writer she introduced me to. Then she met his roommate and we had frittered away twenty years of our lives on them. Some of it had been fun; some nearly tragic.

“I’ll write away for it,” I promised and went to the community center to print the application off the internet.

I looked at it and cursed under my breath. First I would need my birth certificate, and that was a soggy mess somewhere in the bottom of Lake Ontario. I went to another web site and printed off the application for that. This was going to take a while, so maybe the balance on my Mastercard wouldn’t get inflated by a winter trip.

I filled in the birth certificate application and put the passport application aside. I was busy doing other things, like finding out how to load my new USB stick, so I didn’t notice that there seemed to be a delay in the return of the document. The envelope from the Bureau of Statistics came back when the first snow was on the ground. I might not be able to afford new boots, but maybe Cuba was doable.

“Your application is incorrect or incomplete,” the form letter said.

Maybe I had Daddy’s birthday wrong, I thought, and called Mom, who said I had it right, the government was just screwing around because of all the terrorist threats.

I was sure it was collusion between the Post Office and other government departments to make up for the loss of revenue due to the internet.

“I’m going with or without you,” Annabelle threatened when the storms started to hit.

I live above a commercial establishment that repairs small motors that I am allowed to walk through after hours. The other tenants have to trek around the building and go through a semi-paved badly lit alleyway. My landlord has cut me slack. When the doorbell rings after hours and I’m not expecting anyone, I usually ignore it because it’s someone wanting to pick up a re-cored motor that I wouldn’t recognize.

There was a storm and I looked out when the bell went. On the street below was a nasty looking black car, something official. Bad news time. My mother, Evan…

I didn’t bother with shoes, damn the metal shavings from the grinder that were never completely swept up. I fumbled with the two locks on the glass door and two large dark-coated men pushed their way in. They flash ID that wasn’t standard issue and looked around unbelievingly.

“Someone live here?” the bald one asked, the kind of guy who never wears a hat so he can prove how macho he is.

“Apartment behind and I’m upstairs,” I said.

“And you are?” the other one asked. His snow-slicked hair looked dyed or maybe it was just the nasty florescent lights changed the hours of everything.

“Jacqueline Shoshana Pomerantz,” I said and they both jumped. “I didn’t quite catch your names.”

They looked at each other; they hadn’t expected that.

“Is there somewhere we could go?” the bald one asked, not answering my question, gesturing with his head to the door to the stairs.

“Not really,” I said, digging my heels in, and feeling a metal splinter slide in.

“You have ID?” Mr. Clairol asked, getting pushy.

I could see that this was going to turn into a game of good cop, bad cop. I was feeling bipolar enough to be good Jackie, bad Jackie.

“Why?” I asked, pulling out a chair from behind the open-drawered cash register and sitting on it. I might as well be comfortable.

They looked at each other again and then the bald eagle spoke.

“You apply for a birth certificate?” he asked.

I nodded. I wasn’t about the bring back the memory of being in the water, to explain about the waves. I wasn’t going to get out that easy.

“Where’s your old birth certificate?” demanded blackhead.

I tried to hold bad Jackie back.

“Bottom of Lake Ontario,” I said. “Off the island.”

“The birth certificate is government property,” he said. “Destroying it is a crime. Why did you do that?”

Hey, isn’t it the other guy’s turn? I wanted to ask. Good Jackie was getting a workout.

“Boating accident,” I said, and his lip curled in disbelief. “Lost every piece of ID, bank card, charge cards, you name it.”

“Must have been a pain replacing all that stuff,” Baldie said sympathetically.

Bad Jackie had an idea and passed it to good Jackie. I pulled my wallet out of my jeans.

“See, all my stuff was reissued the second week of September,” I said, handing over the picture license and health card. “Heck, I had to memorize a new library card number and change the macro for it on my laptop.”

Baldie seemed to be satisfied but now Blackhead leaned forward. His dripping black hair seemed to slip. Oh, lord, it was a toupee and it was going to tumble off into my lap if he wasn’t careful.

“And why didn’t you get a replacement until now?” he demanded, triumph in every pore.

“Hadn’t realized it was in there, and then I tried,” I said, trying to move away from his drips. “They kept sending back the forms.”

“Because you kept lying on them,” he yelled and I could hear the ballast in the florescent light over me vibrating.

There was a long silence.

“There is no lie on the application,” I said. Now I knew I was good Jackie or I would have decked him.

“Time to take her in and find out who she really is!” Wiggy said to Chrome Dome, surreptitiously adjusting his toupee.

Baldie didn’t answer. He was checking something on a small wireless computer screen.

“Didn’t like your real parents much,” Wiggy said. “That why you put someone else’s name on the forms? Think you could inherit from them?”

I love my mother but I don’t much like her, I wanted to say, bad Jackie thinking the truth even when it was hateful.

“Weren’t around much when I was really little,” I admitted. “I lived with my grandparents a lot. There were my legal guardians because my parents were travelling around in other countries all the time.”

Baldy was looking at the computer screen and gave a deep sigh.

“Can you tell me your grandparents’ names?” he asked.

I did while Blackie glowered. He was growing an eight o’clock shadow both physically and emotionally. Baldy passed him the device. The angry man just shrugged when he read the screen.

“Put up job,” he muttered, and Baldy gave him a look. I had the feeling that they hadn’t been partners for all that long and that they wouldn’t be for much longer.

“I’d advise you to call the toll free number at Statistics and tell them what you just told me,” Baldy said, handing me back all my cards. He looked out at the snow, which was still pounding down. “Lock up when we go,” he advised.

I did, and went back upstairs. I opened the window a crack. The two men were standing beside the car, having a heated discussion that could have melted the snow.

“ – take her in,” insisted Blackie, who was probably as bald as his partner.

“Nope,” said Baldy, fumbling in his overcoat pocket for the door opener. “She had
no idea. And we just opened up a real can of worms for her.”

The car beeped open and then purred off, unlike any vehicle I had ever driven in the snow. The toll-free line didn’t open until eight in the morning. It was a long night, punctuated with dreams of babies being plucked from swamping cradles.

I looked too much like both of my parents to be anyone but theirs. I had always known that they were too tied up in each other for me to be anything but second place.

I called Evan at dawn, watching the snow fall down.

“I don’t get what’s going on,” I wailed.

There was a long pause.

“Your grandfather told me,” he finally said. “They adopted you when you were two. The first time your parents split up.”

“You’re kidding,” I said. How could he know so much and I know so little?

“I’ll be down there in a couple of minutes,” he said, even though the radio had told everyone to stay off the roads. “You can even do the call to the Stats people off my cell.”

The man on the other end of the line was polite and quite understanding.

“There was a legal guardianship change,” I said, giving him Gramma and Grandpa’s
names. “To my grandparents. Would that make a difference?”

“Well, that’s who I’ve got as your parents,” he sighed. “Things were more fluid back then and maybe someone in your family didn’t understand the terminology. Or the ramifications of the legal process. Just print yourself off new forms and put in that information. It’s happened before.”

I was being comforted by a civil servant.

“Wanna go to the beach?” Evan asked. “Call work before I take you there, everything is closed. Except the swans in the snow.”

The pure whiteness, nothing having sullied it…yeah, the beach. I called the office.

“Due to inclement weather, the Centre will be closed today. Please call before your appointment tomorrow or to reschedule-”

The lake was ice, hard. I closed by eyes and I wasn’t in it, fighting waves. Maybe I was over it.

“Let’s go and print those forms,” Evan said. “Post Office will be open.”

He printed, I filled in, and we took them to the southern depot to mail.

“I thought you knew,” he said gently as he dropped the envelope into the shaft that led to a conveyor belt below.

That night I had a dream of legal documents on an assembly line, dwarves passing them along to each other and then roughly stapling the documents to living dolls who cried but didn’t bleed. Then the workshop started to fill with water and I was back in the lake, this time reaching for the papers attached to the dolls, trying to get one for myself. The water was hot and cold; I awoke in a cold sweat and had to take a shower.

The birth certificate finally arrived but I didn’t bother to look at it all that carefully. I didn’t want to know what it said, what lies I had been living with all these years.

“It doesn’t change the fact that we were born in the same delivery room,” I said to Evan.

That was one of the wonderful pieces of family lore over the years and I wanted to keep it alive.

I asked my mother about it gently.

“Just a legal guardianship,” she huffed, and changed the subject. She’s always been good at that. We’ve always let her get away with it.

Like the people who believe that the American president is not a true citizen, my mother and I will each believe what we need to believe about my birth certificate. I know they were married; I’ve seen the pictures of their wedding and when I was brought home from the hospital and the cars in the background give an accurate dateline. But there are other problems. Like trust. Maybe, like the President, I am an outsider. When it comes to my mother, I am ineligible.

*

Lucile Barker is a Toronto poet, writer and activist who has written since swiping her grandmother’s Waterman fountain pen and her mother’s purple ink. Time spent in the corner gave her more writing opportunities. These were augmented in her teenage years by time spent in detention rooms and sitting in the hall outside of the classroom. She may have the world’s largest rejection slip collection. There are no plans for an exhibit of these. She has participated in Nanowrimo for the past seven year. “Birther” is one of the linked stories from the 2011 Nano, Jacqueline Pomerantz had Insomnia Here. Since 1994, she has facilitated The Joy of Writing, which has weekly meetings at the Ralph Thornton Centre, as well as on-line and Facebook members.

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