Milk River is a 90,000 word literary novel written in five voices. 

 

Therese, the youngest child in the family, helps her mother board a bus to a mental institution and begins a struggle to salvage a family tattered by alcoholism and mental illness.  All she wants is a family.  


Her mother never returns.  Rumors fly in their small mining town in the mountains of southern Alberta.
They say her mother was a prostitute and Therese might be good for providing sexual experiences for adolescent boys. 


Therese dodges violence and bad choices. Her only romantic interest gets her in trouble with the law. 
Her father and brother watch their lives dissolve in chaos.  And yes, there is a gun involved. 


Families caught in the web of alcoholism normally practice denial to survive.  Therese refuses. She wants to break the pattern for living provided for her by her family.  She sees the impact of alcohol on her brother’s children.  They are so frightened and nervous they cannot have dreams for the future. They can barely sleep.  Therese claims the children and shows them the way to a different, better life.  She builds a family.


Parts of this novel have been published in Quarry West and Geist.  

The following excerpt,  THE QUALITY OF THE LIGHT, was published in GEIST , Volume 3, Number 13 April/May 1994. Of course, the story has been revised.  Paragraph formatting has changed to better suit this platform.  

                                                            

THE QUALITY OF THE LIGHT

 

THERESE


In 1953 we lived in the tiny coal mining town of Milk River. The houses huddled around Main Street were covered with coal dust, dirty and rag tag with falling fences, sagging roofs, and leaning outbuildings. Daddy built our house in a neighborhood called Bush Town because he thought the houses were better cared for. And he wanted us to live separately, a little removed. Daddy was proud of the house he built. "It's the best on the street," he said. Our house was the second of six strung like pearls along the thread of river passing quietly between the mountains.


That day Daddy wanted to drive into the mountain pass, to see the continental divide, where the river changes direction. It was spring and the river would be roaring. He wanted to hear it running under ice, wanted to see purple crocuses blooming in the snow. "It's too early for lady slippers or gentians," he said. He checked his hat in the mirror over the kitchen sink. He pulled the brim down over his left eyebrow and turned his head to make sure it looked good. “Dress nicely,” he said. “I want to take photos of us before we leave.”


While we waited for Mother to finish fussing with her hair, Daddy took a photo of me standing on the board sidewalk wearing my best gray wool coat. It had a maroon velveteen collar that brushed softly against my cheek. I also wore a brown dress and brown woolen stockings that itched. Because I did not grow fast, I wore last year's saddle shoes, polished to a high gloss. I scratched my calf with my shoe while Daddy snapped the picture. After that, Daddy got Mr. Zielinski, the man who lived next door, to snap a photo of us with our arms around each other. We stood against the white wall of the house, next to the green-shuttered kitchen window. My father, Kazuk, wore a dark gray suit, a red tie, and that hat with a red feather in the band. Pepsi, the black lab, pressed against his knee. The kitchen window reflected the river, and the sun cast moving lines of glittering water on the wall. We looked as if we were floating in the river.


Daddy snapped a photo of my mother, Steffa, leaning against our two-tone blue Buick. And then we got in and got going. Daddy concentrated on the road and smoked. My mother was quiet, stony. I stood on the floor in the back, leaning over the seat between them.  Something they weren't talking about hung in the air. I understood then that there’d been something wrong the whole time we took photos. No matter how I looked from one to the other, I couldn't understand what it was, and they ignored me. So I listened to the static on the radio. Dust floated around in the sunshine. I had my doll with me, Barbara Ann Scott. I could talk to her if I needed to. She was a skater, wearing a tiara and a short dress that swirled around her legs. She stood in skates on a little patch of metal that was supposed to look like ice. She was made out of wood, had fine, reddish hair and tiny, white glass teeth. She wore lipstick like Mother.


Mother‘s small black hat had a veil that dropped to her chin. She pushed her black leather gloves down between her fingers as we drove. I remember her saying, "Therese, look. Now the water runs the other way."
There, the white-capped water boiled between thick patches of ice and I could see that it DID go the other way. "Stop the car," I shouted. But Dad kept driving, kept smoking. I wanted to see that spot, that place where the water began to run the other way. I tapped on my father's shoulder.


"I can't," he said. "There's no place to pull over." The brown slush at the side of the road caught the car and he steered it out of a fishtail. Mother grabbed the door handle to steady herself and I fell sideways in the back seat. Suddenly, the road seemed very, very dangerous. "If we stop now," Daddy said, "we may not be able to get going again."


Behind us, the cliffs rose, white with snow and jagged. In the Baltimore Catechism, Moses climbed down from cliffs like these, carrying the Ten Commandments carved in stone. After a while, the road didn't seem so slippery. "Stop the car," I said again. But Dad kept driving and glancing sideways at Mother. We did not stop to see purple crocuses blooming in the snow. The sun striped the world with the shadows of leafless trees, and then we were home again, and they sat in the kitchen arguing. I listened for a while, then went to the basement. There was a flowerpot down there that had once held geraniums. I carried it up to the kitchen,
put it in the sink, and ran water into it. When it only dampened the first layer, I stirred the water into the dirt with a fork.


"What are you doing?" Mother asked.


"There's some carrot seeds out on the porch," I said. "I want to plant them."


"In that pot? They'll never grow."


I kept stirring the dirt. Other things grew in pots. Why not carrots?


"You need to plant those outside after the weather warms up. Nobody plants carrots in a pot."
                                                                     ________
                                                                      ________


STEFFA


She was stopping up the sink with dirt, but I didn't have the energy to argue with her and Kazuk at the same time. Elsbiet and Yanusch were ten and fourteen when Therese was born. I didn't want her but she was a good baby, quieted when I rocked her, laughed when I held her. She seemed frail but was actually strong and willful. As she grew, she seemed to listen to me carefully, but then she did whatever she wanted.


So, I talked to her and she didn't listen, and I couldn't talk to Kazuk at all. He always came home from work drunk. Elsbiet and Yanusch were married now and gone, so when dinner was ready, I served Therese and myself and put Kazuk's food in the oven on a plate covered with waxed paper. But then it would be dry when he got home at eleven or twelve and he'd be angry. Once he threw his plate across the room. The next day I cleaned the creamed corn off the cupboards.
I couldn't get his attention unless he was angry and it got harder and harder to live there, to cook and clean and get no sign from him that he was ever pleased by anything I did. The drinking got worse and worse. At first, he always made it home. But once last summer John Zielinski found Kazuk sleeping by a telephone pole and helped him to the front door. And one night last winter, he passed out on the porch. If it hadn't been for Therese, he'd have frozen to death. But she heard him fall and woke me up. We dragged him into the kitchen, and I rubbed his arms and legs and poured coffee into him. He got up wild, kicked the coal bucket, swore at us, made me sorry we didn't leave him out there.


Therese stirred dirt in the pot with a fork and I thought there had to be a better way to live than this. But Kazuk leaned toward me over the table, saying, "Steffa, what have you been up to?" I didn't answer. I didn't know how much he knew, so I waited. I'd been doing things I shouldn't, getting attention from other men, getting what I needed to survive another winter. Now, it was spring, and I felt as if I'd made it. I tried to think of something to say. Maybe I wouldn't have to lie, maybe he was only guessing, maybe his anger would fade.


Kazuk put his fists on the table in front of him. His knuckles showed white. "Steffa, what the hell have you been doing?"
I'd never seen his hands look like that and I was afraid he'd hit me. "Honest to God, Kazuk," I lied, "I don’t know what you’re talking about."


A couple months ago I decided if I couldn't get him to come home, then I'd go meet him. I put on my best coat and dress and walked to the bar at the Grand Union Hotel. It felt good to be out in the crisp snow and the bright light of a sunny day. I felt pretty and alive, as if I might be starting a new adventure. I knew Kazuk always stopped at the Grand Union after work to have a few beers with his friends. I thought he might be surprised to see me. I hoped he'd be pleased and sit at my table and buy me a beer and touch my knee, gently. I had imagined he'd look at me like he did when we were first married, and I'd feel like a woman again.


I chose the small, round, chrome table closest to the door, pushed my red-cushioned chair up against the wall and ordered a beer. A man leaned over the bar and talked to the bartender. Every now and then, he looked back at me. God, he was handsome. He wore a navy-blue suit, polished black shoes, a crisp white shirt with starched collar and cuffs. I sipped my beer, turned my glass around on the coaster and stared back.


The man at the bar took his suit coat off and went to the rack by the door to hang it up. On his way past my table, he asked, "Can I join you?"


I thought about this for a moment, wondering what it might hurt. He loosened his tie. I said, "No, I'm waiting for my husband. He'll be coming in any minute." The man shrugged and went back to the bar. I looked at his body through the white shirt. He took his tie off and unbuttoned his collar. After a while, he had the bartender bring me another beer. As the bartender put the coaster down in front of me, the man at the bar turned and said, "My compliments to a beautiful lady."


"Thank you," I said. If he thought I was beautiful today, maybe Kazuk would think so, too. But he came in with his friends from the mine, talking and waving his arms and didn't see me sitting inside the door. He set his lunch bucket down on the bar. He'd showered in the Wash House, so his skin looked pink. No matter how the miners scrubbed, their eyes always had a dark ring of coal dust. Kazuk put his hands in his pockets and talked to his friends. He swaggered and joked.


Then one of the men saw me and hustled over to whisper to Kazuk. He looked at me sitting at the table by myself and I could see his muscles tense up. He glared. He walked slowly, his hands hanging loose. He stood over my table. I tried to shrink into the red plastic chair. "What the hell are you doing here?"


The man in the suit turned on his stool and leaned on his elbows on the countertop behind him. Kazuk took the beer off the table in front of me and smashed it on the floor. Beer and flying glass stung my shins.  The bartender shouted, "Kazuk, no more of that, now. I'll have to charge you for the glass."


"Sure, I'll pay for the glass," Kazuk said. "It's a small price. Get Steffa a mop."


The crowd of men laughed. The puddle of beer on the floor widened. Kazuk stepped back as daintily as he could in his work boots and said, "Get this cleaned up, Steffa, before it gets on my shoes." The men laughed again. Even the stranger laughed, and he'd paid for this beer. Our marriage was a comedy, all right.


I stood up and brushed the drops of beer, the little slivers of glass off my dress. I put my coat on, too embarrassed to cry. I knew better than to say anything in front of his friends. He behaved this way to impress them. What his friends thought of him was far more important than what I thought of him. Who was this man? How could I be married to him?


"Clean up that mess," he said, again.


I surprised myself. "No," I shouted. I stepped over the puddled beer and splintered glass and opened the door. I would not go down on my hands and knees in my best dress and clean a mess he’d made. I expected him to grab my arm or hit me from behind, but then I was on the street, shaking. When the buildings and sidewalks melted in tears, I sat on a curb and sobbed. I had never shouted "no" at anyone in my life.
                                                                               ________
                                                                               ________

 

KAZUK


That's when it happened. Something happened to Steffa. I never saw that expression on her face before. When she put her coat on, the stranger at the end of the bar watched her a little too closely. And when she closed the door, he looked at it for a long time. He had no business being in here, spying on a family argument. I wanted to break his nose, but right then I was too tired for more trouble. The guys slapped me on the back and Ignatz said, "You got your hands full." And, "She's pretty, but what business does she have in the bar in the middle of the day?"


"I'll have to push her back in line when I get home," I said. "I've been letting that go lately."


"That's what you get when you pick a smart woman," somebody said. "Constant trouble."


I wondered if other people knew how hard it was, living with her. She was either too tired to get out of bed or so full of energy she couldn't sit still. When she didn't get out of bed, food rotted in the fridge, dirty laundry stank in the hamper, grime thickened on the kitchen floor. Then she'd turn into a whirlwind and clean the windows every day, boil our clothes in bleach so
they fell apart, dust every stick of furniture, dig in the frozen ground, and cook fancy meals for company. She didn't sleep at all. And she'd be after me to fix things, complaining and nagging.


Those times, she'd seduce anything in pants. I hated to go to work. This is a small town. Word gets around about a woman like that. Every man in town would be wondering why I couldn't keep her happy, why I couldn't keep her at home baking pies. After she showed up at the bar, the guys would expect me to go home and beat her. But I didn't want to put my hands on her in that way. There was something wrong with her that she couldn't help. Over and over again, I talked to her. She listened and nodded, but it wasn't getting through.


I joked and drank with the guys until close to midnight. Then I went home, the beer souring in my stomach. When I opened the door to the kitchen, she sat at the table, concentrating on counting threads for a tablecloth she was crocheting. She looked up in that sulky way she had, and then went back to counting threads.


I took my dinner out of the oven: halibut dry as shoe leather. She paid a fortune for it at the fish truck that comes from the coast once a week. I chewed on it for a while and she counted. The crocheting was a bad sign. She always did needlework when she was trying to keep herself under control. I pushed the plate away. "What were you doing in the bar today?" I finally asked. She didn't answer, kept moving threads. "Were you looking for another man?"


She kept measuring and cutting. "Maybe I was," she mumbled, her mouth full of pins. She took them out and set them on the table. "Maybe I'll look for someone who'll be kind to me." She held a bunch of threads up to the yardstick and carefully cut through each one.


"Do that," I said. "But I'm not putting up with it. That's all. So think about what you're doing. You've got no place to go." She kept on measuring and cutting, showing her anger now and then by slamming the scissors down. I put my dishes in the sink and untied the knots at the tops of my boots. When the laces were loosened, the coal dust fell from my cuffs to the floor.  This wasn't the life I’d seen for myself when I was young. I thought I'd be somebody important, but I never focused on who or what I'd be important to.

 

My life underground was bad enough without my marriage falling apart, too. In the mine, there are so many ways to die, it's hard to pick one to worry about. We're seven levels down in this mine now, two hundred feet below the surface. I work with a pickax on a scaffolding twenty feet up the face. The light from my miner's hat is dim and small in this darkness full of swirling coal dust. One spark can set off a series of explosions and kill all of us. One false step and I could fall twenty feet. We can hear the shale bed of the mine moving all the time. Someday it'll move too far in one direction and all of our walls, our shored faces will collapse.

All of us have carried bodies out of the mine. All of us have waited up top, listening to the deafening roar of the disaster sirens and the screaming and crying of women and children. All of us have wondered helplessly what to do and what in hell was going on underground. All of us have hoped for miracles. It was amazing that a fire could be roaring down below, with walls caving in, and men scrambling and yelling, yet when you stepped out of the elevator up top, the world was peaceful, quiet. Up top, the sun shone, the river flowed past.


What was I doing all that for? Was I doing it for this? Steffa counted, and cut, letting the scissors clatter to the table. I loved her but I was losing her. I wanted to put my arms around her, and stop all her fidgeting, but she seemed so cold. I didn't know what to do, so I put my boots on the porch and went to bed.

A few days later, Ignatz waited for me outside the wash house. He'd come over here with me from Poland. Even when we were young, he was a large man with an enormous, egg-shaped head with a wrinkled forehead and large hands that always hung uselessly. We thought we were dying on the boat from France to New York. After that, we got on a train to Ontario and got off in a blizzard. Ignatz and I had already been through a lot together. His head was now bald and shiny, the wrinkles in his forehead deeply grooved and permanent. He'd never married and didn't understand it much, but he'd been our best man and knew my marriage was important to me. He told me he'd seen Steffa with the salesman from Lethbridge, the one I'd seen in the bar with the fancy suit and white shirt. He didn't tell me this news easily. He held my arm. When I tried to jerk it away, he said, "I'm sorry to tell you this. I'm sorry for all of it."


Ignatz held me tight by the elbow and told me how he went to the graveyard to drop off a carved headstone that had accidentally been shipped into the mine office. The salesman's car was parked against the fence, its windows all steamed up. Ignatz knocked on the window to ask if they needed help because the car was in a spot where there was a lot of snow and he thought it might be stuck. He said the salesman rolled the window down and tried to seem cocky. Steffa's hair was mussed and Ignatz saw that her lipstick was smeared before she turned her head.


That was yesterday. Today, I had Zielinski take pictures of us together, the happy little family. But, in my mind, I couldn't stop picturing Steffa sitting next to the salesman from Lethbridge, him in his fancy suit and white shirt. And so I leaned toward her now, and said, "Steffa, tell me about the salesman, and the graveyard. There's no use acting dumb." She looked crazed, cornered. She shook when she stood up and I thought she was going to run out of the room. I grabbed her by the arms and squeezed, pulled her in front of me to stand between my knees. When she winced, I said, "What the hell do I have to do to you?"


Before I got the gun, I’d agonized over this. What did I do now? Throw her out in the snow? Take her back to her father's farm? Beat the shit out of her? If I threw her out or took her to the farm, she might never come back. I couldn't beat her, didn't want to hurt her. I only wanted to make her listen.


The kid stood at the sink holding a dirty fork. "You're mean," she said. "Why are you hurting her?"
The kid came to lean against my knee. She made a sound, a whine and a cry. I dropped Steffa's arms and pushed her away. There was no way I could talk to Steffa with Therese right there. I could knock that child to kingdom come. If I looked at her eyes, I knew I'd hit her. So I put my hands on the table and studied each knuckle. Right then, I wanted to kill Steffa and I didn't want to explain it to a child. "You're not supposed to hurt people," she said. She wouldn't give up. She put her elbow down on my wrist and leaned into it. I felt the sharp pain of bone on bone.


"Dammit," I said, "go on." I pushed her away. "This is between your mother and me, and you don't belong in the middle of it. Sit down," I said to Steffa. "We're going to deal with this somehow."
                                                                             ________
                                                                             ________
THERESE


I ran water over the muddy fork in the sink. Nothing they said tied together.  Daddy was talking to Mother again. "If you won't listen to me, maybe you'll listen if I hold a gun to your head. Is that what it'll take?"


Mother cried into a handkerchief. "No," she said. "Don't threaten me. I might let you do it."


"I'm not kidding," Daddy said. "You don't believe me? I bought a gun at Trono's this morning. It's under the bed in Yanusch's old room."


I shut off the tap and ran to my brother's room. If there was a gun in there, I wanted to see it. I got down on the flowered linoleum. Something small and dark was pushed against the wall. He'd put it alongside the leg of the bed. I crawled toward it, accidentally kneeling on my dress so it pulled the neckline down. Slowly, carefully, a little off balance because of the pulling dress, I reached to touch the shiny wood of the handle. I hadn't expected it to be so pretty. I ran my hand over it, only wanting to touch the smooth metal part, but I lost my balance and bumped it. It rocked on the linoleum, and then exploded.

 

The bed shook. My ears hurt. I didn't know what happened. From where I lay under the bed, I could see the leg of the dresser and the baseboard. Wallpaper hung in shreds around a hole the size of a walnut. Plaster settled quietly to the floor. My face felt numb. I could hear screaming and crying in the distance. Could I be hurt? I looked at my chest, my hand, and my arm, but nothing bled. Who was screaming? Could the bullet have gone through the wall? I thought of Mr. Zielinski's garden on the other side. It was still buried in snow. There was a snowman standing out there.


The screaming and crying got closer and then it was in the room. Mother pulled me out from under the bed. She hugged me tight. Her whole body shook. Over my shoulder she said, "No matter what you say, this isn't worth it." My ears still had the sound of the explosion in them.


"Right," Daddy said. "Going to the graveyard and screwing around with another man, should never have been worth it. Or did you get money for it? Is that what you did?"


"Shut up," she screamed and pulled me in tighter, putting her hands over my ears. "You think you know everything, but you don't." With her hands over my ears, I could hear the explosion repeating itself in waves.


"Dammit," he said. I 'd never heard him yell like that before. Then calmer, he said, "I don't know what to think about you. How do you expect me to live in this town?"


Her tears rolled down my neck. "You don't understand," she said. "I can't live like this either. You're blaming it all on me, as if you're some kind of angel."


"What the hell did I do to deserve this? What do I do wrong?" He knelt and pulled the gun out from under the bed.
"You come home drunk," she said, then caught her breath. "You're drunk every night. When you're not soused, you're looking for a fight so you can storm out. Your friends are more important than we are."


"Oh, bullshit," he said. And he slammed through the door with the gun. We heard the car start and back down the alley.


Mother loosened her grip on me and sat on the edge of the bed. "I thought something horrible happened to you," she said. "I'd explain all of this to you if I could. I've done things I shouldn't have, but he's been hurting me for a long time." She dug a handkerchief out of the pocket of her dress and blew her nose. "When you're older, I want you to remember this and be able to understand me. Maybe not completely. A little. I don't want you to blame me for all of it."


"I won't," I said. "I won't blame you."


Looking back now, I see that she should have told me she loved me, that I should remember she loved me no matter what happened. But she didn't.


Back in the kitchen, I pushed carrot seeds through dead geranium roots. I set the pot on a saucer on the windowsill behind the kitchen table. Mother cleaned the dirt out of the sink and cried. Sometime after dark, headlights pulled up in front of the garage. When Daddy came in, he still had the gun.


"Therese," Mother said, "it's getting late. Run and see if you can still get milk." The Michalski's owned the last house along the river. They had a small farm where we got our milk, eggs, sometimes cheese, chickens, and fresh vegetables. I hated going down there in the winter, but Mother pushed me toward the door.


I ran all the way down the long, unlighted alley. It was lined with fences and dogs who lunged and growled when I passed their gates. White teeth flashed through the fence pickets. When we were late, Mrs. Michalski always left our bucket of milk sitting inside the door of the barn. I stood there in the dark for a minute. It was so quiet, with only the sounds of the cows breathing and shuffling in the straw. The overwhelming smell of manure kept me from catching my breath, but after a while, I lifted the bucket-handle across my palm, felt the weight of the milk, and started for home. I raced from the faint light of one house to the faint light of the next, bumping the large bucket half-full of fragrant milk against my thighs. It smelled of warm hay, liquefied. I wanted to rest but I could not stop running because then the fear would magnify itself, and become uncontrollable.


When I got to the gate, I set the bucket down on the sidewalk and stood still to listen. It was quiet. White smoke rose from the chimney into the black sky. If he'd used the gun would I have heard it at the other end of the alley? Would I have heard it over the barking dogs and the roar of blood in my ears? Was it quiet because they were both dead? I thumped up the steps and into the porch. No one in the kitchen. I kicked off my boots and discovered I'd been holding my breath. I felt dizzy. I bumped the side of the bucket against the table and spilled the milk.


Mother appeared in the doorway, then. The milk poured into the seat of a kitchen chair and dripped onto the floor. I gasped for air. She got a towel and mopped it up and then poured the milk still left in the bucket into the jug we kept in the fridge. She seemed so calm.


"Where's Daddy?"


"He had to go out again," she said. "He took the gun to Ignatz's. I couldn't live with it here, scaring us like that."
I remember seeing the calmness in her eyes, the peace in her face. And I believed her.


Cold and snow lingered until April. When the snow started melting, the drain in front of Thompson's Furniture Store couldn't handle the run-off so it made a small, deep pond in the middle of the street. When cars drove by, they sprayed the people on the sidewalk, so the grown-ups were annoyed. At home, my Barbara Ann Scott doll skated around on her little patch of ice on top of my dresser. I never knew what happened to the gun. Daddy fell down a shaft in the coal mine. He had a bruised face and he hurt his back, so he didn't work for a while. Sometimes he pulled me through the snow in a cardboard box nailed to a sled so we could go fast without the danger of my falling off.


Mother filled the house with the smell of baked bread. She made fancy pastries and washed clothes. She took the basket of wet clothes outside and hung them on the line. The basket steamed in the snow. In late afternoon, she'd bring the clothes in and hang them, frozen, on lines that crisscrossed the kitchen. Frozen long underwear could stand by itself. At night, through the doorway of my bedroom, the kitchen was eerily draped in the shadows of men. My parents' muffled quarrels pierced my heavy blankets and the shadows visited my dreams. By morning the frozen underwear grew limp and dried in the sun pouring through the kitchen windows. The arguments retreated and I'd wonder what I'd been so frightened of.
                                                                                  ________
                                                                                  ________

 

STEFFA


Kazuk asked me what I intended, and I honestly didn't know. I could see the marriage was falling apart and I felt shattered. But there was this last, small child. Who would take care of Therese? She grew wildly nervous, running and falling down so much she scraped the scabs off her knees and elbows. Once, she fell holding onto a sucker stick and somehow it went through her lower lip and into her teeth. I tried to calm her down, but it was hard. Kazuk sat at the table and drank. His hostility weighed more than he did, became another person we lived with.


I waited for a message from God, a clear statement, but the words I heard were garbled. All I saw were the burdens we had to carry. Angie Zielinski, the little girl next door, had a bad eye. It kept growing a pink spot where it should've been white. Pauline, her mother, wanted us all to be friends. She invited Therese to play with Angie and served them butter and sugar sandwiches. But Therese marched home with the sandwich, and handed it to me. Wordless. "Why don't you eat with her?" I asked. But there was never any answer. I never knew what she thought, or why she did that. Therese dug through the snow piled against the fence to uncover the rocks there. Then, she threw rocks at Angie whenever she got the chance.


Then one day Pauline peeled an orange so the skin was all in one piece and could be put back in the shape of an orange. The fruit was now all white. Running to show me these beautiful, fascinating treasures, the peeling in one hand and the orange in the other, Therese fell on the board sidewalk and punctured her knee on a nail. She got blood on the white orange and destroyed the careful arrangement of the peeling. It was easy to put the peeling back into shape, but the blood stain on the orange wouldn't wash off with cold water. "It must have been lovely," I said. "It's okay. You couldn't have kept it perfect anyway."


She stopped crying for a moment. "Why not?"


"You meant to eat the orange, didn't you?" I could tell that she hadn't. She wanted to keep it, somehow. She turned it around and around for a long time, then finally ate it. She wrapped the peeling in leftover Christmas paper and put it in a box on her dresser. It rotted there, became a smelly blob, ruined the paper and the box. When I threw it away, she cried.


Pauline wanted to take Angie to the city to have the pink spot on her eye removed. But her husband, John, didn't think they should spend the money. They argued. Pauline insisted and then finally did it, without his permission. They made payments on the hospital bill and sometimes at night I heard thumping sounds and screaming coming from their house. The spot in Angie's eye disappeared for a while, but then it grew back, wider, darker pink and puffier than it had been before.


After that, Pauline bought a three-hundred-dollar bible from a traveling salesman. She quoted from it, wiping her eyes and sobbing about hell and damnation. She invited us over for Angie's birthday, and served a marbled cake, the newest food. It was brown with a large pink spot inside. We picked at it on our plates. Pauline blurred around the edges of the dining room table, pouring milk and serving tea in cups somehow unstable in their saucers. She gritted her teeth, slurred when she talked and stroked at the air as if she were pushing something away. It frightened me. I wanted to tell John that Pauline hadn't done anything wrong. She only did what she had to. That's all any of us does, even Kazuk. He bought that gun because he needed to. It didn't change the way things were between us, but we were running out of ways to solve the problems.


It was hard to remember the way we'd been in the beginning. He was the best man at Adrienne's wedding, and I was the maid of honor. I was taken with his dark, handsome face, the clean, white line of his teeth. He swept me around the floor in the Grand Waltz and I had a vision of us sweeping through our lives with the same grace and style. I knew everybody had problems, but I didn't see us grappling with problems we couldn't solve. I thought we might have to struggle, but I didn't think we'd suffer. And I never dreamed there would be a gun involved.


At first, the marriage seemed so glorious. For the wedding, we planked the floor of the barn and danced for three days. We ate cabbage rolls and perogi, dill pickles, ham, baked chicken and bupka cake. We drank rye and ginger ale and the children dozed under benches or in the hay. Toward dawn of the last night, Kazuk spent an hour removing the money pinned to my dress and putting it into a milk pail. "How could you have danced so much?" he asked. "Did you really dance with everyone who pinned money on?"


"I had a drink with some of them," I said. When we left, my bouquet of roses cascaded over white lace, seed pearls, and satin. Kazuk held my waist. No one knew my white satin slippers were grayed, my feet red and dirty. We went straight to town, to the little house we'd rented. I decorated the kitchen with clay chickens painted turquoise and orange. I planted a hundred red tulips in the flower bed by the front door and dried the baby's breath from my bouquet. I'd lived on a farm, with seven brothers and sisters, cows, horses, chickens, and chores. Now, in town, I dressed up, entertained and went out. At first it was as wonderful as I thought it might be. Kazuk, handsome in a dark blue suit, put his arm around my waist and leaned into me, guiding me in a grand waltz through the birth of the first child, Yanusch.


We are never promised our lives will be easy, but I always had the faith I would never be given more than I could bear, that I would not be broken by hardships. I expected Kazuk would stay by me, that he'd be there when I needed him. In a maze of sleepless nights, I carried Yanusch while he pulled at his own ears and screamed. I cried too and stopped combing my hair or changing my clothes. I was too tired. I begged Kazuk to take the baby for a few hours, so I could sleep. But he was lost in blueprints. Out of my sleeplessness, he built my dream: a gorgeous white house, with green shutters, three large bedrooms, hardwood floors, even an indoor bathroom, something unheard of at the time. It was a great thrill the day the white porcelain tub, sink, and toilet were delivered in crates.


It took me some time to understand Kazuk was lost to me. He only thought about the woodwork and did not see me or hear me anymore. When I talked to him, he answered me with measurements and calculations, and questions about how I wanted things. I understood this to be the stress of installing a bathroom with only a page of typed directions. I didn't understand he’d be lost to me forever.
                                                                            ________
                                                                            ________

 

KAZUK


At Adrienne's wedding, Steffa wore a shiny green dress that shimmered when she walked. She was friendly and smiled a lot. When she laughed, she put her whole body into it. She slipped into my arms and we danced as if we'd practiced for years.
We didn't have phones so the first time I went to the farm to see her, there was no way to find out if it was all right or even if they'd be home. I drove out on a Saturday morning a few weeks before Christmas. I had bought a car and learned to drive. I'd hit the driver's door on the clothesline pole and bashed it in. Now, it creaked when it opened and I felt embarrassed, as if the entire countryside could hear it. Steffa came to the storm door carrying a bread pan, a smudge of flour on her chin. "We're baking," she said. "Do you want to come in and meet my mother?" Her sisters and brothers marched through the kitchen to look me over. If there was anything wrong in those early days together, if there was any sign, I didn't see it. And, of course, her sisters would never have told me she was crazy.


I wanted to take her out of there. She worked too hard and lived with all those people in one house. Around the farm, she wore a dress made out of a flour sack. One of the first things I did after we were married was take her shopping for clothes. I bought her a dress, a coat, shoes, and a hat with a veil. But then, she got pregnant, and after the child was born, she sank in a despair I could not pull her from. So I built her the house thinking to cheer her, trying to excite her about something. I'd go to the bar after work, have a couple beers, then go to the house and work on it. I stayed late making kitchen chairs, wainscoting, shutters for the windows, and even a matching birdhouse in the back yard. Sometimes, I sat at the kitchen table and watched the river. I hated to go home, with Yanusch crying all the time and her either sunk in sadness or so full of energy and doing so much at once it was hard to be in the same room.


I didn't think we were in deep trouble until we went to a wedding at the Polish hall. We hadn't been out for a long time, but we'd moved into our new house and settled down and Steffa suddenly had energy. She wore the green dress from Adrienne's wedding. It was a couple years old by then so Steffa was pleased it still fit. We drank, danced, and ate. I went outside for a smoke. When I came back, she was dancing with some guy. He had one hand on her breast, the other on her ass. She was looking him straight in the face and laughing. I streaked across the floor. I pulled him away from her. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" I asked. I hit him. His friends stepped out to help him and my friends saw me getting beaten so they stepped in, and it turned into a brawl.


In the car on the way home, my right eye swelled shut, my good suit torn, I asked, "How did that happen?"


She sat against the door, pushing against the handle, still perfect in her green dress. "He asked me to dance," she said. "I should have turned him down. I didn't know he'd put his hands on me."


"You were enjoying it," I said. "You were laughing."


"No," she said, "that's not true." She took out a handkerchief and cried. "I was embarrassed."


"You looked as if you were enjoying it."


"It's bad enough you caused all trouble," she said, "by starting a fight and ruining the wedding. Don't call me a liar." She sniffed. "I should know when I'm enjoying something or when I'm not. In fact, I'm the only one who knows."


I tried to believe I'd imagined it, that I'd been jealous by the sight of another man dancing with my wife. But it was so clear: the way that shiny green dress was darker where it pulled in tight below her butt, the way his hand fit there, his other hand caressing her breast, slowly. The way he looked into her eyes and smiled. And she tilted her chin up and laughed. My chest felt tight. My hands shook.


I hated to leave her to go to work. I imagined her walking around town pushing the baby in the buggy and looking for trouble. I wanted to keep her so low in energy she never left the house. At least, when she was depressed, I didn't have to worry about her.
When I heard about the salesman from Lethbridge and the graveyard, I felt an actual pain in my chest. I felt wild. On the surface, I looked like an ordinary man. But inside, I was crazy. I couldn't sleep more than a couple of hours. I barely ate because I couldn't swallow.


I don't know how the accident at the mine happened. It may have been my fault. I wasn't concentrating like I should've been. You can't work in the mine and not pay attention. No one was seriously hurt. A coal car got loose somehow and bumped me. I flew down the coal chute, a giant slide, all the way into the truck at the bottom. I broke my collar bone and a few ribs, and tore my fingers trying to stop myself. But that's all. I'm lucky to be alive.


So I had to spend time at home. I thought that might be a good idea. I'd keep an eye on Steffa and maybe we could weather this, maybe we could come together again. But there was no way to get close to her. She counted threads and crocheted, measured, and baked. And the instant I left the house, she'd be gone somewhere.
                                                                                   ________
                                                                                   ________

 

THERESE


That summer I played in the backyard with my dog, Pepsi, and made doll clothes out of scraps of material until I lost my needle and thread in the grass. Then I caught grasshoppers and put them in a jar. The kids next door, wearing their suits and carrying towels, left to go swimming in the river. Even Angie. I wished I could go too, so I went into the house to ask. Mother slept on the sofa with the venetian blinds pulled down and a face cloth over her eyes. Not wanting to wake her up, I waited in the doorway until she lifted her hand to move the face cloth, then I tiptoed to the sofa and knelt beside her. She didn't open her eyes, but she said, "I'm sick."


"What's wrong?" I could never understand my mother's illnesses. She didn't run a fever or vomit.


"I have to go," she said. "I have to go." She pulled the cloth off her face and sat up. She seemed dazed.


"I want to go swimming in the river with the other kids," I said.


"Not now," she said. "The river is too cold. You'll get polio." She stood up. In the dim room, her bright yellow dress reflected the light. Then she took my hand and said, "Promise me you won't go into the river. Promise."


"I promise."


"Good. I don't want to have to worry about that, too. Now, go get the brown suitcase. I have to go."


"Where?" I asked, but she walked across the hardwood floor toward her bedroom, concentrating the way she did when she had no energy. I pulled the scarred suitcase off the shelf in the basement and lugged it into Mother's bedroom.  She'd pulled the shades here, too, and turned the light on. It was hot and dim. She brushed the dust off the suitcase and then folded and arranged underwear, stockings, a couple of dresses, some nightgowns. She put on a beige hat with a blue feather in it, and draped her beige coat over her arm. She put her hand on my shoulder and seemed to want to say something, but then she picked up her purse and the suitcase.


When the screen door on the back porch closed behind her, I opened it again and followed her. "Where are you going? I want to go, too."


"No, I'm sick. I have to go to the hospital at Ponoka. You can't go with me."


The kids next door said Ponoka was the nut house and my mother belonged there. In the alley behind our house, skirting the mudpuddle Mr. Zielinski's sprinkler had made, I said, "I can't see anything wrong with you." I waved my arms at Pepsi, trying to make him go back home, but he put his tail between his legs and trotted along behind us.


When we got to the street, Mother said, "You can come with me as far as the bus. But then how will you get back home?"


"I'll be careful. I can even cross the highway, now." I waved my arms at Pepsi again.


Mother trudged to the bus stop, the feather in her hat bouncing, her steps careful in spikes in the gravel beside the road. "It's a long way to go in these shoes, with this bag," she said. "I have to concentrate, or I won't make it."


I tried to carry the bag, but it was too heavy for me and I wasn't much help. She stopped once, put the bag down and rested. "We'll make it," she said. "When we get to Duffy's, I'll go in and get the bus ticket and you can run across the street and see if your father's in the bar at the Grand Union."


It was hot. Every time a car passed, dust swirled around us. It took a long time to get there, but finally, we saw Duffy's sign with the neon green shamrock. The paint peeled on the front of the building, but the windows were clean. Teenagers sat at the tables inside and had hamburgers and chips and root beer floats. At the door, Mother said, "Go get your Dad, now."


"Will you still be here when I get back?"


"I don't know when the bus comes. If you hurry, I imagine I'll still be here."


So I ran down the street to the Grand Union Hotel. I always loved the fancy red rug, the glittering lamps hanging from the ceiling. There was no one in the lobby behind the big desk. I rang the bell, and no one came. So I rang it again and again, then I went to the door of the bar. I could hear people inside talking. I knocked timidly at first, then as loud as I could hit my knuckles against the wood. I sucked them where they hurt, and a man came to answer. "My dad," I said. "Kazuk. Is he in there?"


The man held the door open so I could see the people sitting at small, round tables. "It's your kid, Kazuk," he said.
"What does she want?" my dad shouted.


The man holding the door looked at me. "It's my mother," I said. "She says she needs to go to the hospital. She's catching the bus right now."


"I'll tell him," the man said, and he let the door slam in my face. I waited a long time. I worried the bus would leave and I wouldn't see my mother again. I wanted to tell her I loved her.


Finally the door opened, but it wasn't my father. It was the man who took the message. "Kazuk says she's doing the right thing." Then he said, "Kazuk says he's not going to come. He's busy. I'm sorry, kid. That's what he said."


I didn't want to cry in front of this man. It was too embarrassing. I wished I could cry silently, but the wail rose out of me and escaped into the air. I couldn't hold it in. The man shook his head. I turned and ran. Outside, the heat writhed off the sidewalk and carried the sound of my crying. The dog sat on the curb and whined. The bus was pulling up. Mother handed her suitcase to the driver so he could stow it underneath. I buried my face in her dress and choked. "Are you coming back?"


"I'll come back, if I can," she said.


"No," I screamed, "don't go." I put my arms around her and hung on. She pulled my arms away and held them, then she kissed me on the cheek and got on the bus. I stood on the curb, terrified. My tears fell into the dust, making small dots. Pepsi whined and yipped around me. What did it mean that she'd come back if she could? The bus pulled away in a roar of exhaust. I studied the windows but I couldn't find her face.


After a while, I went home, sat on the back step and hugged Pepsi until dark. The kids next door came home from swimming and hung their bathing suits on the clothesline. They snapped each other with towels and laughed. They had their lives and I had mine. And there was a universe of blinking stars, spinning planets and distance between us, no common air.
                                                                           ________
                                                                           ________

 

STEFFA


I don't remember much about the end, there in that house. When something hurts too much you go into shock and you don't remember what hurt you, or you jolt awake and you don't remember what awakened you. He took the gun away, but he might as well have used it. I was overwhelmed by a vision of dying, of leaving my children the burden of my thought, the way I had tried to live a life of order that kept moving away from me.


I sat at the table in the kitchen and watched the clouds moving across the blue sky, watched the ice melting in the river. Once a week, I dumped the ashes from the stove. It was so cold that winter, the river so shallow, I had to hunt for deeper water. The clumps were cradled at first, then broke apart, floated away, stuck to rocks. And I thought of what I had hung onto, what I had let go, what had been taken from me by small words, currents of breath, what could be taken from me by a gun ripping the air apart.


But it was always quiet at the river. The aspens rustled in the wind. The stream trickled beneath the ice at the edge. I used to think I heard the child swimming before she was born, then she broke water and when I held her, I could see her toes are like mine. As tiny as she was, her toes were like a row of corn on the cob. And the littlest toe on each foot slid halfway under the one next to it. Beneath skin we have the same bones, the same pattern of veins. It was strange to think we could have the same toes when the world was in chaos, tumbling about me.


Later that spring when the river was wild and frothy with run-off, a wooden crate rode the current, scraped between boulders, and slipped through banks of melting snow. A dog swam to the other side, barking. A kitchen clock marked time in the water, face-up, ticking. I wondered about the face of that clock. I could hear it ticking through the kitchen window, no matter what went on in the kitchen, no matter how fast the clock rode the river to the ocean.


The ticking finally interfered with my thinking, my counting at crochet. I was making a bedspread, but it kept getting larger and larger. I added more colors and used them more often. The pattern got more and more complicated, more and more difficult to count out. A river of threads, an ocean of bedspread. I wanted to cover the world with that bedspread. I sat at the table counting threads and stitches. Kazuk sat across from me, watching.


I knew the gun was gone but I dreamed about it all the time. I dreamed I fixed roast beef, made gravy, browned potatoes, boiled water for corn I rushed to throw in when I heard his car door slam. When I turned away from the corn, he waited at the table with the gun and some papers he wanted me to sign. All I had to do was sign the papers. The corn bubbled on the stove. The gun glinted beside the butter. He shot at the window and the speckled mirror above the sink. Broken glass tinkled to the floor. After that, he drove away, and I sat at the table. The corn was soggy, the beef and potatoes cold, the gravy so salty it made me cough. And I'd wake up coughing, the clock ticking loudly.


I dreamed I arranged irises in a vase in the kitchen. When I finished, I stood back to admire them. They quivered purple and gold in the sunlight. I dried my hands on my apron. The door flew open, and Kazuk stepped in with the pistol. He raised it and pointed it at my head. I lifted my arms, and said, "No." There was a flash. I woke up sweating, my hair stuck to my head.


The dreams were so real I was surprised to find the window and the mirror in the kitchen were not broken. I avoided roast beef, corn, and irises. Sometimes, I smelled burning and had to run my fingers through my hair to be sure there wasn't a burned spot, a place where the hair melted together, where he aimed at my head and missed.


One day I fell asleep at the table. I put my head down in the threads. Kazuk helped me to the bed, took my shoes off, and tucked me in. I could sink into the sheets, and sleep without dreaming. Kazuk drifted away sadly and I worried about losing him in the texture of those days.

 

I dreamed he left me and I got a job selling oranges beside the road. The sign read: TREE RIPENED IN FLORIDA (and brought all this way in bags for you.) Behind the sign, in the dirt, thieves gambled for what had once belonged to us. I tried to tell Kazuk about this dream. I wanted to talk to him, but he didn't seem to be listening.I wanted to tell him he was wrong about Walter. 

 

Walter had been kind, so kind. He'd held my hand, touched my cheek, said he’d pick me a bouquet of shooting stars when they bloomed in the meadow above the graveyard. He wanted me to run away to Lethbridge with him. But that was too crazy for me. I have my problems, but I've never been reckless. I didn't want Walter so much as I wanted what he stood for: a man who might love me enough to spend time with me, a man who would see me as a person with feelings that needed to be respected. I only saw him a few times and then his business in town was done and he left. He was already gone when Ignatz told Kazuk.

 

Kazuk would rather kill me than listen to me talk about what mattered to me. He'd rather die than give me anything I asked for. I had to fight back. I had to get to Ponoka, where they could stop the clock ticking, the river running, the thieves gambling away my china, my bedspreads. I didn't want to wait for him to drive me. His driving scared me. We were always getting into wrecks. It was a miracle we survived some of them. I had a guardian angel who wildly flapped her wings behind us whenever we were in the car. I knew I couldn't stand any more nervousness, so I packed a suitcase and left. I couldn't put it off even for one day. The child followed, her face set, stoic. I asked her to walk in front of me so I could see her better. She seemed to be holding her breath until she staggered. Then she'd gasp, exactly as if she were under water and coming to the surface for air. "Why are you breathing like that?" I asked her.


She shook her head. Her face was empty. I put the suitcase down and put my arm around her. "It’ll be all right," I said. "I have to do this. If I don't go to the doctors at Ponoka, then we won't have a chance of fixing this."


When she went to get Kazuk out of the bar, I thought I'd tell him I was sorry I hurt him, Walter meant nothing to me, my family and the life we'd built were the important things. I thought I'd hug him, kiss him good-bye and tell him I loved him, I'd be back, and we'd work on our life together so we could both be happy. But he didn't come out. I'd been foolish to expect it.


The bus pulled away and through the smoke smeared, tinted windows, I could see the child crying on the sidewalk. Oh, God. But I had to go. In my dreams now she comes toward me, her arms raised up, the soft white skin there that never gets the sun. Even from this distance, I want to pick her up, shield her, and if I could tell her anything it would be a warning against a darkness falling that has nothing to do with the quality of the light.