When I got the news my Grandpa Hank died, I was pissing on a pregnancy stick.
It was my fifth test in the past six months; Emry was a good fuck but he never knew when to pull out. The morning-after pill had been my saving grace, but this time I wasn’t so sure. I’d spent the past week in my apartment by the Byward Market puking cheerios and calling in sick at work; an outsider in my own body. Emry thought I was just sick from stress, mentioned that he thought my “family issues” were making me a wreck. I hated that degree of honesty.
We started fucking in grade twelve after being partnered for a chem project. (I fell in love with him around two years later, but I’ve never told him that.) He was a hard worker – lived up on the Native Reserve by Pembroke; came to see me on weekends after my shifts clearing tables at Carmello’s, the ritzy Italian bistro on Sparks Street. He was tanned and sexy and quiet and all he wanted was my body and the free wine and eggplant parm I brought home with me. We were comfortable. Mornings after, sometimes we’d sit up in bed and have coffee before he left. “Nonnie,” he’d say staring back at me in my bed through the dresser mirror. “Have a good day Kid.” Maybe it was weird he stilled called me Kid; he started that because I was only five-foot one in high school. But the way he said my name, “Nonnie,” was an ‘I love you’ in itself in my ears. And I knew more about him than anyone. He had a birthmark under his left ass cheek, he took his coffee black and he had a scar under his left eye from a bar brawl last year. I knew he didn’t keep in touch with anyone from high school except me, and we were old friends having sex– that’s all. I knew I didn’t want to have his baby but still, the idea of a little boy or girl with his almond eyes and raspy voice, asking me questions like mommy where does snow come from? Or why is the sky blue? didn’t seem so awful.
It’s what family’s do; shrink and grow.
My Grandpa Hank was eighty-nine, in his last stage of chemo, smoked for over half his life. Mom was living at his bedside at Queensway hospital. We all knew this was the end. My Grandma Moses was already dead before Maude and I were born and Mom was an only child, so it was my duty to drive Princess, my beat up 2003 Grand Caravan, to pick up my sister, Maude, and go to Grandpa Hank’s lake house outside Killarney to bring back what my mom vaguely referred to as “the box” as carefully instructed in Grandpa Hank’s will. My Grandpa Hank had been living in a full care retirement home in Ottawa since they put in his pacemaker, hooked him up to an oxygen tank. It had been years since he’d truly been home. Mom didn’t want us around to him all withered and sick and dying. I never visited much. I’d wait outside the door for my mom to come out weepy and sick, her toned yoga body sallow. I had always greeted her with lemon tea and the most pathetic smile was all I could muster up. I hadn’t said bye to her before I left – I had been too pissed, too scared. I hadn’t showered; I just locked up my place and drove along the ice-trimmed freeway wishing Emry had called me back.
The lake house was a 4-hour drive from St Angela’s Prep in North Bay, Maude’s snotty-ass all-girls boarding school. It had taken me 68 litres of gas, 4 litres of Schweppes ginger-ale and 4 flip-over’s of my Fleetwood Mac tape to get there. It would be the most time Maude and I had spent together since she came home last Christmas. When I pulled into St. Angela’s roundabout driveway, dozens of angst-ridden gangly teenage girls in uniforms looked me up and down, mostly fixated on the pile of blonde dreadlocks on top of my head, tied up by a bandana that said “muck fundays” between the folds. Eyes darted when they were in gaze of my eyes, which where buried by dark circles. I was so fucking tired. I got out and greeted my little sister. Maude was a clone of the rest of her friends – knee-high stockings, plaid skirt with the hem up as high as possible, heavy eye make-up. She’d dyed her blonde hair auburn, which seemed to make her hazel eyes louder somehow and her freckles darker. No small talk, just awkward close-mouthed smiles and a leaning one-armed hug. It took eight trips to get out of her dorm, including lugging the personalized logo luggage (MA – Maude Andrews) on the handles. Her dorm-mother, a fat woman with whiskers, waited at the bottom of the spiralled fire-escape stairs while her friends all stood outside in an army of plaid; kissing her goodbye, saying sorry about your grandpa and love you Maudey-bear and text me sweetie.
My sister was skeletal in appearance, a half-ass recovery from an eating disorder last summer. But she had fluctuated weight ever since we were little and our parents split up. Her anxious months left her a dead autumn tree, wilted naked and ready to cave in on itself. Her good months she would pay more attention, eat her meals, get outside for fresh air – a Maude in full bloom. I liked comparing Maude to a tree because no matter how many changes a tree underwent on the outside, its insides were still full of sweetness. There was always life inside. Well that’s the Maude I remember, before we both grew up.
Maude got in the van and sat in the back with all her suitcases, lying sideways, headphones on, eyes closed. Hours passed in silence. She was either in shock we were together, or she was sleeping - maybe she even died back there and I was staring at her skinny corpse. The leaves were all tinted silver by the sun and they were bright; leaves red as blood. It felt morbid while we drove, beautiful but so stale. Every so often I glanced down at my big-ass Nokia phone, which was wedged between my thighs so I could keep both hands on the wheel.
Grandpa Hank was dying. It was Wednesday November 14th and I was 9 days late.
I called Emry. No answer.
We drove west for two hours before I pulled over at a Chilli’s bar and grill outside Lake Nippissing and lied to Maude that I was starving. She woke up confused for a moment, a look of indifference plastered on her face. “That’s fine, I really have to pee.” She ran into the restaurant.
Those were the first words she’d spoken to me all afternoon. I rifled through my shit in the trunk until I found that stupid pregnancy test. Better late than never, and I shoved it in my bag. Chilli’s was a classy place, it had elevator jazz playing, “first date platters” on the menu and obnoxiously dim lighting because that was scientifically proven to make you hungrier. Test that theory on Maude motherfuckers. There were tons of obese mothers feeding their obese children, plates and plates of golden brown, oily food. There were 14-year-old waitresses, braces glinting in the cheap fluorescents tripping over each other in the narrow hallways. We got a booth, ordered, went to the bathroom.
Maude tightened her neck muscles and veins popped out of her like skinny snakes in some kind of sick migration. She fiddled with the straps on her Levi overalls that she had changed into sometime in between naps. She wore them tucked into high lace-trim socks and a high-neckline blouse underneath. That girl was way before her time. She had her oversized Hugo Boss glasses resting on her forehead even though they were prescription and helped her read.
My phone vibrated.
“God, why is my Mom calling me right now?” I said dropping my Nokia with disgust, sliding it under the bathroom stall.
Stone-face Maude was shaking in her boots on the other side of the stall securing the door for me. (What kind of people spent time busting off the locks of public washrooms?) I pulled my sweatpants down, fruit of the loom underwear inside them. Through the crack of the stall, I could see Maude press her tiny figure against it, I looked down and I saw her ankles and then one hand scoop up my neon orange Nokia. Reliable shit, those brick phones.
Maude told mom we’re both fine, grabbing lunch.
More like, I was grabbing lunch. Picking apart the carrots in a salad that had the least amount of dressing on them and three refills of diet coke was not a meal. My sister was a crumbivore and she nibbled her food like it was poison. Maude made a few “mmhm” murmurs and I could see her shifting the weight of her feet in her brown uggs under the door.
Something about having Evelyn Andrews, my ex-pageant queen mother, the delicate little mouse she was, on the other line was so, so, so sick as I tore open the First Response box. Nonnie, this is the place you’ll find out if you’re a mom. This is what you’ll remember. And your mom is at her sick dad’s bedside on the other line. Yeah, Nonnie, go fuck yourself.
Then I heard Maude crying.
I waited, said nothing.
She cried harder.
Still, I waited, shook out the stick.
“Nonnie,” Maude said, “Mom says Grandpa’s gone.”
We didn’t finish our food, paid, drove. I glued my eyes to the yellow lines of pavement ahead and tried not to think of Grandpa Hank exhaling for the last time, monitor resounding into a sharp harmonic frenzy. I needed air. We got out somewhere outside Killarney Lake and the leaves were so tinted by fall air; we could have been in candy land. It wasn’t the usual yellow, orange, and red, there were pinks and violets and mahoganies. The sky cast my skin grey, matching Maude, through the car windows with pools of light bringing out flecks of freckles on our skin. The water was mirror-glass, still and perfect. We took turns monitoring for hikers or wild animals, pulling down our pants behind a thick-trunk maple with golden leaves. We were like dogs marking our territory. More like lone wolves. The final stretch was a series of winding roads, gravel. Even Princess stalled over the hills with bad nerves. Maude sat in the front this time and gnawed at her nails; playing “Bleeding Love” on repeat the whole way there. Her grieving process needed work.
The lake house was different than I remembered it. I knew it was partially because the entire drive had been spent in silence and I had been trying too hard to picture every inch of the property the exact way we had left it. Last time Maude and I went up here to visit Grandpa Hank was when I was thirteen. When we rolled up to the green picket fence that I always remembered being blue, I learned the difference six years could make. The house itself sat crooked, the entire patchwork roof slanting to the right. Like how a sunflower bends to the sun, it bowed toward the water. The grey paint was greyer somehow and the porch was all buried in leaves, no wood in sight. Branches flooded the lawn. There must have been a storm not too long ago.
“Where’s the bird-feeder?” Maude’s voice cracked as she searched the perimeter of rosemary bushes lining the property.
We lived here an entire summer with Grandpa Hank when my dad left my mom and all she could do was slave away in her real estate office during the day and drink chardonnay in bed at night. We’d built Grandpa a feeder for hummingbirds because when he told us their wings flapped 90 times a second we hadn’t believed him.
“It’s long gone Maude.”
But I could still see Grandpa Hank slamming the porch door and walking down to us girls, in our one piece bathing suits and denim shorts giggling as the tiny birds buzzed like bugs and circled around the wad of honey on the round red disk we hung off of Maude’s skipping rope. He said I told you so. I remember how tall and wise he looked in his overalls and white beard and circular clip-on sunglasses. But I started missing my Grandpa a long time ago. He’d been senile, shrivelled and deaf since he moved to Ottawa, and I made a pact to myself to preserve his memory as he was; a man who read Hemingway for fun and smoked a pack of camels a day and even let me have a puff of one when I was seven and curious. I choked and dove into the lake and gratefully swallowed the freshwater. Turn me off of tobacco for life. Emry smoked. But sometimes I liked how his mouth tasted ashy, kind of like bark and salt.
I tried him on his cell. No answer. My stomach suddenly flipped. I ran to the edge of the dock and vomited french fries into the water, watching the starchy clumps disappear in the black water. I felt Maude’s eyes on me as my stomach tightened and wretched and gurgled.
“Nonnie,” her voice wavered and I figured it wasn’t from the minus-five weather. “I’m going to get us some rakes from the shed.”
I didn’t look up to see if she ran off but I heard the sound of leaves crunch.
We raked Grandpa Hank’s property, the whole half-acre. My fingers turned white it was so cold and I felt like such a dumbass for not bringing any mitts. My denim jacket wasn’t cutting it either and it was five years old and from the Gap so it wasn’t like I could use the “sacrifice fashion for comfort” excuse. Maude raked with a vengeance for those leaves in tiny angry strokes that left treads in the fresh mud. When both our cheeks were nearly purple, and every leaf was stowed away in the forest perimeter, I convinced Maude to come inside and make tea with me. We kept our duffel bags inside Princess; neither of us felt at home without Grandpa Hank’s Santa Clause chuckle and even the smell of peppermint aftershave no longer wafted through the house. Mom had been up just after Thanksgiving to turn off the water for the wintertime, so we had to use water bottles from the car to fill the stovetop kettle. There was still the same stock of Tazo Awake tea Grandpa had gotten as a gift from Mom and he’d laughed and called it “trendy.” Maude’s hands were twitching with cold and her lips were blue. She sipped her clear tea.
“So did you get the box yet?” she said her eyes wondering upwards to the open loft framed by wooden railings. It was a one bedroom. The box had to be up there.
“No, I'll go take a look.” I didn’t realize the stairs were warning me with their shrill creaks. Most of Grandpa’s stuff - his clothes and bedding and picture frames and retro car figurines were moved to the care-home with him. Only one cardboard box remained by the windowsill. This must be it. Inside saw a jar the shade of old pennies, bay leaves engraved up and down the sides. I yelled fuck at the top of my lungs. It was an urn.
“Nonnie?” Maude ran upstairs, and I jumped when I felt her icy hand on my shoulder.
The urn had Elizabeth Moses engraved around the rim of the copper lid.
I called my mom, barely waiting for her to pick up.
“She was here this whole time??” I was screaming.
Grandpa Hank’s funeral was on Friday and mom sounded like she hadn’t slept at all.
“I’m sorry; I should’ve told you girls. I just thought, maybe you wouldn’t go if you knew about Grandma being there, and it’s what he wanted. He wanted them to be celebrated together. I had no idea he’d had her there with him until a couple of weeks ago. He said he’d scattered her in the lake years ago. Guess he never could part with her.”
“Over a decade after? That’s the most –“
“-Nonnie, it’s what they both wanted. My parents loved each other more than –“
I hung up. Maude had the urn at the kitchen table in her lap. Her nostalgia sickened me a little. We hadn’t even known her. It was a false nostalgia; a lament for the stories about her that other people, especially Grandpa Hank, had told us.
“Can we at least put Grandma back in the box Maude, please?”
Maude had been crying; her make-up smudged all down her chin.
“She’s been here this whole time. This is like The Notebook or something.” She petted the urn as if it were a housecat. I couldn’t help but laugh a little at her, this hormonal schoolgirl.
“Are you pmsing? How is this anything like that?”
“Remember all the pictures he used to show us of her? The one where her and Grandpa are shovelling the foundation of their first house? They looked so happy. Or the ones of her in the 50s in the hula contest on their honeymoon, in the grass skirt and she has her hair pinned up?”
I did remember.
Maude bit her lip. “Good genes.”
I smiled. Maude never joked.
We sat in the wicker chairs on the porch in silence and watched as Orion’s belt sparkled and echoed itself along the clear glass of the lake.
I walked down to the shore. Maude followed me with Grandma still in her arms, a wool blanket that was a map of the USA draped around her shoulders. We sat down on the sand by the fire pit that already had kindling left in it. I lit a match from the book in my pocket. We tossed the elephant issue and the Bermuda Triangle issue of my Grandpa’s many National Geographic’s on the flames, watched the shiny pages blacken and fold in on themselves. It was freezing but we let the smoke and flames soak into our pores; numb us out. The breeze made little waves of water lap up toward our feet. Maude placed the urn in the sand, cocooned herself in the blanket until LA folded over Miami.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket. No service down here. I hope Emry didn’t have another girl in his bed tonight.
“Hey Nonnie?” Maude’s voiced cracked, barely audible over the rustling leaves. “I saw you put - never mind.” I turned my gaze from the stars to Maude’s wide, deer-in-the-headlight eyes.
“In your bag…at Chilli’s, before mom called. Were you? Are you?”
I felt my face redden. “No, no I'm not.”
“Are you still sleeping with…sorry I forgot his name…Emmitt?”
“Emry. Sometimes. Why?”
“I don’t know.” She reached for the urn and placed in between her knobbly knees.
“You love him?” she asked. She looked like a grown girl back to infancy. I’ve never seen her try so hard before.
“I didn’t want to be –“I stared at my stomach, “If that’s what you’re asking.”
The wind’s whistle grew louder and I re-tied my hair because the loose locks started swinging around like wind-chimes framing my face. We both turned away from the water; staring back at the lake house and all the leaves that began to swirl themselves from the forest back to the yard. We waited til the wind died; and I stoked the fire with a long walking stick.
“No I know. Why would you want a kid? You’re nineteen.” Maude seemed embarrassed for asking and I felt guilty she did. She was my sister; she was allowed to ask these things.
I sucked in icy air that was slightly mixed with the fire’s heat.
“Maude, are you a virgin?”
She traced over Grandma’s name with her thumb. “I did it with Tommy Fullerton, Regina’s cousin, at her house Thanksgiving weekend. In a cot in her basement.”
“And so you love Tommy Fullerton?” I wished my tone had come across a little less devil’s advocate.
“No.” She finally looked back up at me, smirked with her eyes creased up like half-moons. “He’s from Cornwall and records jingles for TV ads. Flaming red hair, and flaming red-“ Maude blushed, then her face hardened. “But for five minutes there, I think I did love him.”
“I miss coming here,” I said. She reached out her hand, laced it with mine. It felt weird at first, and then it felt right.
I stared out across the lake toward the opposite shore that Grandpa Hank used to take us to in the paddleboat. The valleys over there seemed so far away; the farmland, grass and trees sewed up into a patchwork quilt pattern.
Maude pursed her lips. She didn’t want to talk about Grandpa.
I stoked the fire, yawned.
“Nonnie I would've come home, you know, if you really were –“
I felt a lump form in my throat, let a couple tears brew and pour down my face. The fire crackled sparks on my runners. I watched them turn vibrant orange to a cool coal black. I placed my hand over Grandma Moses’ urn, felt the cool metal distil my hand. I was in the company of strangers, but I never felt more at home.