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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Fiction #42: Jessica Van de Kemp

Blue Spruce Lane

I have a dream
To fill the golden sheath
             of a remembered day.

                                                 —Lola Ridge  

Their shutters are a dull shade of yellow. I’d said so to Barbara the first day we moved into the house across from the Rutherfords.

“Barb,” I’d said, “have you ever seen such horrid shutters?”  
“Can’t say that I have, Frank.”

We live on Blue Spruce Lane, in the less fashionable part of Thornhill; there are two apartment buildings just northeast of us - all windows, like a floor length, gilded mirror floating in the sky. Our own house has a little hedge that spans the driveway and a birch tree smack in front of the bay window - can’t see a damn thing besides the neighbour’s shutters. Old money gold.

I walk Barb across the street to have dinner with the David Rutherfords. He keeps a good car in the garage, I’ve seen it before, and somebody keeps the chrysanthemums in the front garden white and heady. I glance sidelong at Barb and see her wondering the same thing I am – Who does the gardening anyhow? Mrs. Rutherford has rheumatoid arthritis, you see - can’t hold a fork properly, let alone a watering can. Rumour has it she succumbed quite young too: twenty, maybe, fresh in love.

That was the first thing the Woodruff’s told us. “Welcome to the neighbourhood!” George had called over the fence. His wife, Doris, had waved happily in our direction before tucking a brown-haired boy into the house. That’s when the good car had slowed into the Rutherford’s driveway and George had waved at a balding David. George had had the good sense to wait for David Rutherford to roll down the garage door before he had turned very sharply to me and said,     

“When you meet Evelyn, don’t mention her hands.”

This morning Mr. Rutherford rung us up at ten o’clock and invited us to dinner.

“Get a sitter for the children,” he advised.


“Get a sitter for the children.”

“What children?” I asked innocently.

The whole day has been sunshine and warm wind. Not a cloud in the sky until five o’clock. We’d spent half the morning opening boxes just trying to find the good shoes, the good suit, the good dress. Barb said it was a good thing she’d slept with hot rollers in her hair. 

The bouquet of daisies for the Rutherfords proves gratuitous, and at precisely five-thirty the front door opens hesitantly, and Evelyn Rutherford stands at the threshold, all dolled up in a silk dress. It is spitting rain.

“Are you alright?” she asks me at once.

“Everything’s Jake.”

“I’m thrilled you could make it,” says David, moving to stand behind his wife. He is a portly man with absolutely no hair at all on his head. “Come right in.” He bids us quickly into the foyer and nods at the daisies in Barbara’s hand. “Evey will take those from you, Mrs. Newell. Much obliged.” He takes our coats and shows us into a cozy room that smells of tobacco and spine-cracked books. “Have a cigarette, Frank.”

Mrs. Rutherford rolls in a small cart with hors d’oeuvres. Her hands are horribly slanted. I try not to stare at the wedding ring on her finger, but it seems out-of-place, like a quarter dollar painted gold. I half-expect to see the standing liberty on the top of the band. “Anything to drink – Lemonade? Whiskey and Soda?” She has an unnaturally curt voice for a woman. “Oh, soda,” Barb replies. “Just soda.” She glances politely about the room at the pale lampshades and the floral cushion covers. “Whiskey for Frank. Just a finger or two.”

There is music. It sounds like it is coming from the kitchen. Mamie Smith’s voice rings like crystal:

                    “I don't know what to do.
                    Sometimes I sit and sigh,
                    and then begin to cry,
                    'cause my best friend
                    said his last goodbye.”

Moved by some overwhelming impulse, I stand when Mrs. Rutherford returns with our drinks, and ask if I can use the bathroom. “Shouldn’t have had all that giggle water at lunch,” I say bashfully, “but Barb loves the stuff. Says it’ll make a real Canuck out of you.” Mrs. Rutherford looks over at her husband, but David is lounging on the sofa, genial in his laughter. “Through the kitchen, old boy.
Down the hallway and past the photo of the Ziegfeld Girl.”      

                    “There's a change in the ocean,
                    change in the deep blue sea.”

There is nothing overly fancy about their kitchen. There is a whicker basket in the corner, beside a dust pan, that holds a dozen or so copies of old Time magazines. Jack Dempsey’s face sits like a rutabaga at the top of the pile. 1923, and the Liberals are roaring proud with M. King leading the pack; they even say that the HOLLYWOODLAND sign is up and proper now in America. Lights up in segments. Gotta wonder how many moths go straight for the flames – how many girls get lost in the mutterings and the moonshine and the bulbs.

The smell of roast beef drippings is pungent: sage and peppercorn; homemade horseradish in a jar. Find the photo of Myrna Darby in the hallway; she looks a bit grummy, and has some kind of headdress on that looks like a great big sundial. Regular modern-day Hathor. I can hear Barb asking faintly over Mamie’s jazz if the Rutherfords entertain quite a lot.

“Those are some photos you’ve got there, Mrs. Rutherford.”

Can’t quite hear Mrs. Rutherford’s reply from inside the bathroom – something about the people in the photographs, the Brittons and the Jamisons, the Mr. John Donnelly’s, the Shafer’s from Scarborough, the Tenney’s of Etobicoke, a woman named Frances Mayfield who they call ‘Gran May’ because she’s old enough to remember a goodly number of things, including the first railway built in New Scotland.

I dry my hands on a rather ugly-looking blue hand towel. Barbara says color blindness runs in my family, so most things look an ugly blue. “Gran May says the train’s always been a lumbering hayburner of a thing.” David chuckles at precisely the moment I turn the light off in the bathroom, and I find myself standing immediately still, listening to the great bellied sound of his laughter.  

Where was the music coming from? Not the kitchen. And not the bathroom, apparently, though that would have been an odd place to keep a phonograph – beside the sink, with its extraterrestrial head facing the casement window, like a bronze little buttercup. The music is awfully muted here – all you can hear is muffled chatter and the faint ticking of a clock.

A door opens and closes somewhere in the house. For a brief moment, there is the sound of rainfall, a waft of cool air that ruffles my trousers at the knee, and the smell of earthworms. There is the sound of little feet pitter-pattering across the floor, or is that rain?, and I am met by two eyes in the darkness, or at least I think they are eyes, staring up at me kindly, curious.

“Gold,” says a child’s voice.


An African-Canadian child, about three years old, steps into the hallway and tugs at the bit of ruffling trouser at my knee. She puts her hands flat on her cheeks and smiles with a full mouth of white teeth. “Gold, mistah,” the child says, drawing out the long vowel O. “Gooooo.”


She leads me by the pant leg to the end of the hallway. There is a small mudroom to the right and a white screen door. Presumably, it’s the door that opened and closed just a minute ago, the one that set a rhythm to the night. I lose sight of the child as she runs onto the verandah. I can almost swear she’s laughing back at me as I follow her outside.

There is nothing but the rain and a sea of bright, yellow light. Yellow light floating above the earth, the entire backyard drenched in darkness, yellow rose bushes from here to the fence, soft petals kissing the child’s legs. The music is louder here. The child sinks her feet into the black mud and wiggles her toes. I know she wiggles them. I call out to her using any name that I know.

“Helen! Doris! Josephine!” 

She runs low through the bushes, baby hands clutching at the flower heads, decapitating them, like a young lark flitting from branch to branch.

“Tawny!” I cry.

Her laughter buzzes against the rain like the sound of cymbals crashing, like the thundering heart of a woman with child, or the pleasant, fizzing taste of lemonade.

What a funny little bird. “Tawny!” 

The screen door opens, closes. I can hear Barbara calling to me, but her voice sounds very far away. “Frank! Darling, you didn’t get lost [on your way to the bathroom], did you?”

David’s voice now. Unnaturally calm. “Come back inside, Frank. Evey’s made a nice roast. I’m afraid you’re right obligated to eat it, old boy.”

I find it difficult not to look at the child’s hands; the petals fall like gold coins upon the ground. She is at the fence now, sliding back a loose piece of wood. She disappears into the neighbour’s backyard, and the wood slides back with a thump, the rain finding its drum. A trail of yellow petals in the mud. That is all that remains. 

“David—” I turn to look at him. “Did you see her?” 

Barbara steps out of the mudroom, her hand touching the white screen door. I see her shiver a little as the damp air finds her bones. “What on earth are you doing, Frank? Come back inside! It looks like it’s going to rain pitchforks.”

David blinks. “I saw nothing.” He sighs heavily, and then, “It was a bush rabbit, old boy.” 

“Come inside now.” This time it is a curt tug at my sleeve, and Mrs. Rutherford is struggling to hold an umbrella upright; she manages to lead me back into the mudroom. The white screen door closes sharply. I am given warm socks and a pair of David’s shoes. I am politely led into the dining room and asked if I’d like some roast beef au Jus.

There is music still. I can hear it. A lone voice singing the blues.


Jessica Van de Kemp was born on Old Beltane in 1989. She is a member of the Ontario College of Teachers and is currently pursuing an MA in Rhetoric and Communication Design from the University of Waterloo. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Branch Magazine, Buttontapper Press, and Vallum.

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