Back to Stories Index
Andrea Rudy has an MA in creative writing, and her
short stories have appeared in The Berkeley Fiction Review, A Room of
One's Own, and FRONT, as well as the 2003 edition of the Canadian anthology,
Coming Attractions. She grew up in Oshawa and now lives in Vancouver,
* * *
Charlotte woke up to a rainy, miserable day. The temperature
had dropped drastically through the night, and it was tough to set her
feet on the cold floor. When she finally made her way to the chilly
kitchen, she looked through the back window and saw the heavy-set woman
from the house behind hers standing between the frozen laundry strung
up along the porch. She puffed on a cigarette, and let the smoke waft
through the frozen clothes as she dashed ashes to her feet. Charlotte
notice how her poorly permed hair was flattened on top by a morning
shower. It was tough some mornings for people, but even she, that large,
unhappy woman, even she was trying for something when she wasnt
drinking and cursing out her husband and son. Even she was not a nobody.
The old house needed some work if it was to get through another winter.
So did Charlottes home.
Charlotte played with her coffee machine, fiddled with the leaking faucet
over the kitchen sink, and ran a finger across the thin film of dust
on the window ledge. Aunt Rachel wanted her to visit her at the Ukrainian
Hall that afternoon. She hadnt been in months, and it seemed the
right sort of day to be in a hot kitchen. The women there wouldnt
She hung out there a lot as a child, sitting on a stool, watching their
fast hands roll out the dough, cut the circles, and fold them into half-moons
over mashed potato or sauerkraut. Dozens after dozens would be dropped
into pots of boiling water on the stove, then tossed in butter, divided
into plastic take-away dishes and stacked on the table. The women moved
around Charlotte talking in a blend of Ukrainian and English, a combination
shed understood back then.
Charlotte had always moved between the bustling kitchen and the quiet
halls during her days there. The walkway leading to the stairs for the
upper hall was lined with photographs of the dance group each year.
Her father was in 1962 and 1963, kneeling on the floor in traditional
costume with another couple boys, and four young girls flanking them
in their dresses and scarves. When Ed had been around hed always
rolled his eyes and dismissed them with a shake of his head, saying
he was an old man now and that he didnt remember such a day.
Sometimes when she was feeling brave, Charlotte walked up the narrow
stairs to the stage with her sandals clacking through the empty space.
Even then with all the lights out except for the thin stream coming
from the kitchen, with the long curtains drawn and no sound except the
clanging of pots, even then she felt eyes on her. She was too self-conscious
for a child, too worried shed appear foolish, and yet still had
a girls desire to see the world from the stage, to see the hall
from a dancers view.
In the afternoons, people came in and picked up their orders. The women
in the kitchen would be exhausted, but working both there and at home
hadnt worn them down; instead it gave them legs as sturdy as tree
trunks and shoulders that could bear endless weight. Charlotte would
sit outside watching the cars pull into the lot, watching the quiet
church across the street as the priests wife propped the door
wide open and watered the flower beds along the entrance.
Surely it hadnt been more than a few months since she last visited.
Perhaps it had even been a year. Time moved strangely. For the rest
of the morning, she puttered around doing laundry and sweeping floors,
and it was just past eleven by the time she got to LVIV. The few pedestrians
on the sidewalk looked dark and dreary in their raincoats and heavy
boots, and Charlotte rushed passed them through the doors. Inside, the
large kitchen was humming, and the radio was turned to the CBC adding
a steady voice to the banging of pots and mixing of languages.
Charlotte, you came. Rachel wiped her floury hands on her
apron and poured her niece a cup of coffee. Its a family
affair, today. Pauls here, too. Hasnt been in years.
A voice from the stove joined in. I forgot what
that boy of yours looked like, Rachel. I think he was still in school,
last time I saw him.
I try to get him to church on Sundays. I still
Charlotte took the mug. Where is he?
I think he went to watch the dance rehearsal from
Is it his day off?
He said so.
Charlotte sat down at one of the tables as her aunt returned to the
bowls on the chopping block. Everything was the same as itd been
five years, ten years, and fifteen years earlier, and Charlotte still
felt in the way, as the hustled and spoke around her. She didnt
really know any of them, and yet she knew them best of anyone.
I think he wanted to talk to you.
Charlotte looked at her aunt. Whats that?
Paul came to talk with you. I told him I didnt
think you were coming and that he should call, but hes still hanging
What does he want to talk about?
I wouldnt know, dear. Rachel wiped
the already spotless stainless steel table and sat down. My feet
are killing. Youd think from all these years theyd grow
tougher, not feel my excess weight so much, but no, they have to keep
on aching. She slipped off her shoes and rubbed her stocking feet
with frail hands that were cut like topographic maps in all their wrinkles
and exposed veins. I wouldnt know what he has to talk about.
I wouldnt know. Hed been a silent boy and was now
a quiet man, everybody knew.
I think hes upstairs, Rachel repeated.
You going to go see him?
Maybe in a minute.
The faint beat of the music in the hall made its way to
the kitchen. It was a familiar sound, but no more a sound of home than
the boiling water and soft hiss of steam rising above the stove. I
think I should go away for a while. See some things. They say
its now or never.
I dont know who they is. You could do I suppose,
for a while.
Youll come back, Rachel said.
Charlotte finished her coffee, put the mug in the large dishwasher,
and wandered off towards the hall. She found her cousin leaning over
the railing of the upstairs gallery, watching the stage with little
interest. He was eight years older than Charlotte, and when she was
still in high school he was already working at GM on the opposite shift
to her father. Over the years, his untouched hair had become a heavy
mop that softened the edge in his cheekbones, the length of his Ukrainian
nose, and the point in his chin.
Your mom said you wanted to talk.
Paul turned around. Hey there. I thought you were
moving out west right away.
No, I dont think I said that.
He looked at his watch, tilting it to meet the light
from the hall below. You took your time getting here. I gotta
I wasnt even going to come. I didnt
know youd be here.
There was no small talk in him. She was reminded. He
ran his fingers through his dull brown hair and looked her straight
on. You know, my mom hasnt been honest with you. For years
she and your father knew where your mother got off to. I dont
blame Uncle Ed, after all, Jill was bad to him you know, but when he
died I thought my mom wouldve brought it up. He turned to
watch the stage. I thought you should know.
Someone knew, they always knew. Charlotte felt the sudden
weight of her purse bear down on her shoulder. But all the times
they said they had no idea.
And maybe they didnt, not in the beginning.
But I overheard them talking one time when I was still living upstairs.
Mom called Uncle Ed over she was the first to find out. Apparently
Chucha was in Washington State and wanted my mom to mail out some of
Pauls words, if they were true, stung like the
thousand pinpricks of a slap on her cheeks. Pauls words and the
way he spoke, the way he folded his lips and opened his eyes, saying
it wasnt his secret to bear, that if she was heading to the Pacific,
well, that was reason enough.
He didnt reach out to touch her.
Not much. She was working at a marina. Your father
asked if she was with a man, and my mother told him she didnt
A marina? What did she know about marinas?
Charlotte said. What did she know about boats, and what did she know
about the ocean? Did she take vacations and to where? Did she think
about her daughters?
She remembered her mother liked sliced strawberries marinated
in sugar and spooned over vanilla ice cream. Did she still do that?
When she was on the phone did she still write her name across scrap
paper over and over and over?
There was one other thing, Paul said. Apparently
your mother had dual citizenship. Did you know?
Charlotte shook her head.
Yeah, neither did your dad.
Good people couldnt be blamed for not telling her things they
believed she was better off not knowing. She thanked Paul. He gave no
stipulations like women so often did: dont tell my mom you know,
or dont let her know it was me who told, or dont blame your
father, dont blame your mother. Charlotte wasnt sure if
she loved him as much as family should be loved, but they seemed to
understand each other at that moment.
Youre heading out that way and I thought
you should know, he said again.
She had said she was leaving, and the fact that he believed her, Paul
with his sad eyes, made her want to leave. She wouldnt go looking
for her mother; they made TV movies for such things. From the beginning
she hadnt planned to follow through on Whistler, but her father
had seen places, and plus Paul believed she would. He said an awkward
good-bye, mumbled something about meeting a friend, and slipped quickly
down the stairs.
Charlotte didnt go back to the kitchen. She went home and the
next few days bled into one another. She flipped through the employment
ads and walked the length of the mall looking for the Apply Within signs,
all the time knowing that somehow shed meet a slow death by defeat
if she went back. She missed her father, the strength of his sadness,
and the belief that she could steady him.
She found herself watching daytime television, her muscles felt stiffer
in the mornings, she rarely left the house, and it only took a week
of that to be cause for concern. She was filled with many fears, and
spending all day with nothing to do only made them stronger. Nothing
ever changed. The only difference she felt over the years was how she
gained and lost weight. It used to be that a size fluctuation could
happen over night; she wouldnt eat for two days so she could fit
into skin tight pants for Friday, or shed party with friends and
have to wear jogging pants and skirts for a week because of it. Now
everything was a constant: her diet, what she wore, the size seven jeans
never changing to six or eight. On the seventh night of living this
way she started change with something small she set her alarm
clock and moved it just outside her doorway.
Lately when Charlotte would be on the brink of sleep, her heart slowed
down and she thought this must be what dying felt like. What was inside
her body, she wondered during that in-between state. What illness, what
disease, what weakness did she have that had yet to come forward? Or
what genes would get her in the end? She cried. Without tears or sound
she cried in hope that shed wake the next morning and be closer
to change, closer to curing herself. Perhaps her fear of illness was
a self-fulfilling prophecy. She was frightened of them, too. But she
still woke every morning, thanked God she made it through, and promised
the Lord that shed make things right. It was going to be one of
those sleeps on that seventh night.
The street was silent. A fog settled in and Charlotte couldnt
see the houses across the road from her bedroom window. She opened it
a crack to let the dense air in and finally drifted off dreaming she
was lying on a damp forest floor. The alarm rang out at seven the next
morning, and she started getting ready for work before she remembered
there was no work to go to. She crawled back in bed, and at nine called
a former coworker at Eatons.
I cant believe they cut you back! What were
Id like to send my resume to your cousin
in Whistler, Charlotte said.
Really? There was noise in the background, the
sound of Amanda opening the till, breaking rolls of coins on the counter
and emptying them into their compartments.
In that cold morning Charlotte had made up her mind,
alone in her empty house.
I think its a good idea, Amanda said.
Come by any time and Ill fax it off from the office. Hey,
were getting a new shipment in today. Ill pretend your discount
is still good, if you want.
I dont need anything. If you give me the
fax number I can send it myself.
Its an assistant mangers position,
and my cousins got a huge house where you can board.
Ill get the number to you on my break.
Its a big place. Im talking one of
those million dollar homes. It belongs to the shop owner whos
never there, so he lets Janet stay for real cheap. He owns more than
just the one shop.
There was plenty of time to back out, plenty of time to change her mind,
and that notion propelled Charlotte forward. She didnt know what
itd be like not to look down on Oshawa, on its grimy streets and
smokestacks below the 401, and her neighbours below the tracks. With
the sounds and smells and sudden motion of a train, a person didnt
have to leave to feel like they were always coming and going. Her mother
knew that. But one day Charlotte would need more than just a feeling.
Next Story: ...........................................................................................................................................