– Nonfiction by Kat Main –
In the attic stands a cardboard mansion fashioned and furnished by Aunty Joy. The doll house has sixteen rooms and stands four feet tall, spread across the north wall of the attic. Barbie One is posed in the shower, arms braced against the walls. In the kitchen, Barbie Two splays her legs beneath a table adorned with plastic turkey and yams. In the bed, Barbie Three’s hand dips faintly to touch her dusty forehead. Cobwebs fasten the dolls to the walls of each rose-papered room. Ken grins from a yellow Camaro outside the house, waiting to whisk Barbie away from this life.
My sister cranks the heat. Lights blaze in every room. Bottles of wine and vodka line the kitchen counter. Five cousins – all girls – falling off our chairs. A horde of banshees saying goodbye to Aunty Joy and this old house she inherited from Grandmother. My sister balances on my lap. We snap selfies until my phone drops into her vodka coke.
We cousins have been sporadically lodged in this house throughout our childhoods, stored on cots and couches to make way for the boarders from the Brockville Psychiatric Hospital. Grandmother erected thin partition walls throughout upstairs the to create five tiny rooms to house the boarders. Their monthly social assistance cheques were guaranteed regular income to bolster Grandmother’s home sewing and alteration business. What else could you do with a smoker’s cough, grade 8 education, dead husband and nine kids underfoot?
The boarders came downstairs each morning for breakfast. Herbert wore a black garbage bag over his naked hairy chest to protect himself from bugs crawling over his skin. Tea, buttered toast, two blue pills, and the crawlies disappeared. Afterwards, Herbert wondered what to do with the black garbage bag.
January 4th. Joy hadn’t answered the phone for three days. Cousin number two dropped by the house and found Joy in her bed. One arm bent over her eyes, hand knuckled into the mattress at an unnatural angle. Blood spilled from her nose and mouth, crusty and dry. She was blue.
December 29th. Six days before cousin number two finds Joy, I’m visiting from Alberta for the holidays.
We crowd the small kitchen table, Joy and we five girl cousins, eating our belated Christmas dinner. A small turkey, mashed potatoes, peas, a lump of cranberry jelly ridged from the shape of the can. Beside Joy’s plate: two small blue pills.
We lob banter and buttered rolls across the table. Just how many hours does it take to cook a ten-pound turkey? Was someone on a smoke break while the potatoes were burning? Are we sure we have enough peas?
Girls, girls. Serious grown-up voice from Aunty Joy. Settle down. Let’s all get along. For Pete’s sake. Then she tosses a pea at my sister’s head.
In her way, Joy mothered each of us at one time or other. Me, during my mother’s vacations to the Psych after her overdoses on painkillers. My sister, the year after our mother breathed no more. Cousin number three, when her mother kicked her out of the house at the age of thirteen.
We, in turn, have mothered Joy since the voices took up residence behind her eyes twenty years ago. Answering middle of the night phone calls. No, Aunty Joy, there are no cats inside the walls scratching to get out and eat you. No, you don’t need to sleep with a mosquito net on your face to keep the bugs from crawling down your throat. No, your ex-boyfriend didn’t make you stab that store clerk down the road. Really, there was no stabbing. The police aren’t in on the conspiracy. We promise, you’re safe.
I passed the turkey and Aunty Joy told us how she was going to redecorate the kitchen. Lime green walls. Bamboo patterned curtains. She would hand-sew the matching placemats. She bought the material last Tuesday. For the first time since Grandmother died three years ago, I couldn’t see any voices lurking behind Joy’s eyes. I kept looking, but her voice stayed even, her eyes bright and clear. Next, Aunty Joy said, adding a leg of turkey to her plate, I’m going to design my own clothing line. I have so many plans. Wait until you see.
January 6th. Two days after cousin number two finds Joy, my sister and I arrive from the airport and knock on the door. Cousin number one opens the door with a box of alcohol in her arms and a joint hanging between her lips. It’s going to be a good old Irish kind of send off.
To Joy! We thump red plastic wine glasses together. The fridge is across from me, a hulking white morgue of spoiled milk, expired condiments, an empty jar of peanut butter. The exterior of the fridge is covered with rusty brown spots the size of plums. I cannot fathom what could remove those spots. Comet? Bleach? A sledgehammer? The smell of Joy’s bedroom above us leaks into the kitchen through the radiator behind me. I down my wine and nudge my sister to pass the bottle.
The snow swallows us up to our knees. I take my cousin’s hand. She’s twenty years younger than me. We fall backwards at the same time into the snow, slicing our legs and arms through the heavy whiteness. Drunken snow angels waving to heaven. Hi, Aunty Joy!
It’s minus twenty-four degrees Celcius but the wine and vodka are keeping our blood warm. We are laughing so hard we cannot pull ourselves upright, sideways or any other way. My sister yanks me, then my cousin, out of the snow. Cousin number three lights a fresh joint. The smoke mingles with our breath in the frigid night air. We take a thousand group selfies with frozen fingers under the moonlight.
Stuffed teddy bears, faded and dusty with small glass eyes, are roped to the standing lamp in the corner of the bedroom. My sister snores next to me on the futon. I study the two round scars on her forehead where the halo was drilled into her skull six months ago. Unstable C2 fracture, the doctor said, a miracle she’s alive and walking. After the accident, her red Honda Civic looked like it had been stepped on by Godzilla.
Layers of wallpaper peel from the corner of the ceiling above us. I can relate to this wallpaper, slowly coming unglued inside this house. Through flimsy walls I hear the cousins downstairs. Dull thunking of wine bottles. High-pitched cackling. I close my eyes and see an endless white wall swimming with rusty brown spots the size of plums. We are sleeping in Herbert’s old room.
The next day my sister and I hold our breath in Joy’s bedroom. A sickly sweet smell clogs our throats. Sweat pants, socks, and panties are piled in heaps. Cigarette butts and roaches crumpled in a black plastic ashtray. Her certificate for “Health & Life Skills Class” askew on the wall. The rumpled bed looks like Joy’s just woken from an afternoon nap. Minus the blood-soaked pillow that my sister gingerly lifts and drops into the black garbage bag I’m holding.
Cousin number three finds a mouse, hard, flattened, and grey under the piano stool, an imprint of my Aunt’s shoe across its backside. Caught fourteen mice last month, Clarence the handyman from Brock Cottage tells us. Joy kept a jar of peanut butter in the fridge specially for the traps.
Clarence returns the next day, bangs on the back door, sobs with beer-soaked breath. He needs eight dollars to buy Aunty Joy a cross. Promised he’d buy it for her ages ago. She always wanted one. Now it’s too late. But he’s got to buy it.
Clarence, the eight dollars, and the cross never reappear. The house is alive with mice.
Jake, Aunty Joy’s on and off again boyfriend, shows up with a plate of egg salad and canned chicken sandwiches. He made them himself. They are warm and soggy. I make him instant coffee that I find in the cupboard and he eats half the platter of sandwiches. He flips through his phone and reads the times of his phone log with Joy: Yup, last time I talked to her was 3:14 pm on Monday. He says this three times. I liked to help her out. Shoveled the walkway for her last week as a matter of fact. She usually pays me ten dollars. Not that I care if I get paid the ten dollars, mind you. He mentions this four times. We give Jake ten dollars and chuck the leftover sandwiches.
We hang a sign on the door for the customers: Joy’s Alteration Business is now Closed. Thank you for your Patronage.
We sort bobbins, thread, and fabric. All the snippets of the sewing business she inherited from Grandmother along with this hundred-year-old house. Dollar Tree shopping bags hold customers’ orders: a set of hemmed curtains with a homemade thank-you-for-your-business card, patched blue jeans with more patches than original material left, twelve miniature embroidered Christmas stockings so perfect you’d swear they were factory-made.
Dresser drawers labeled: cotton, lace, corduroy, sheers, denim, rayon. Bins of pastel knitted baby blankets. Cupboards of jewelry supplies, pill bottles of beads. Boxes of watercolours and oils. An unfinished painting propped against the desk with wavy apricot lines in the shape of lilies.
We work our way through the house, packing, cleaning, sneezing, stuffing fifty years of creative talent into black garbage bags.
Three cousins go out for errands: to pick up the death certificate, to work a shift at Tim Horton’s, to replenish the booze. My sister and I take turns washing our hair in the kitchen sink. I pile the dirty dishes back in the sink with Aunty Joy’s butter knives, tips stained black from years of hot knifing on the stove. We take turns having a shower, hopping on ice-cold tiles beneath a dribble of too hot water.
January 13th. Time to fly back to Alberta. My sister and I haul our suitcases out the back door past garbage bags overflowing with wool, fabric, Barbies, and rose-papered cardboard rooms. Muslin pools onto the snow like spilled red wine. We wave to our three cousins standing on the curb beside our cab.
A male flight attendant with curly hair performs the airplane safety demonstration. My sister pays close attention, her face strained with fear. She looks up to confirm where the oxygen mask is concealed, feels beneath her seat for the floatation device, counts the rows to the emergency exit. The flight attendant notices my sister and attempts to make her feel better. You going home to Calgary? Ever try driving down Deerfoot when it’s icy and you end up doing a 180? Now that’s scary. Odds are one in twenty million that you’ll die in a plane crash.
My sister doens’t miss a beat. Try rolling your car five times and breaking your neck. My sister shows him the two round scars above her eyebrows where the halo was attached to her skull. The attendant shakes his curly head and gives her a free set of earphones.
My sister holds her breath and strangles the armrests. Her face is tight, eyes wide. I draw a picture of a cat puking on her barf bag along with her name in big balloon letters. She doesn’t look. Suddenly, the smell of sour cabbage and rotten eggs drifts back from the seat ahead of us. I plug my nose, point to the man seated in front of me and fan the air while making dying faces. My sister busts a gut and her grip finally loosens.
The constellations of Ontario blink 35,000 feet in the darkness below us. In my pocket is a silver thimble from Joy’s sewing room. It fits snugly over my thumb. We replay the old messages on my sister’s phone and Aunty Joy’s deep breathy voice fills the space between us. Hi honey. It’s me. Again. Still waiting for you to call me back. Call me back. Okay, I love you.
About the Author – Kat Main
Born and raised in Ontario, Kat Main is an educator, writer, and researcher. She now lives and works in Calgary, blending her time between writing and working in the non-profit sector. Her work has appeared in ODYSSEY, Parity and Alberta Views magazine. Kat’s writing was a finalist for the 2018 CBC Canada Writes Creative Nonfiction Prize and in 2013, she won the Brenda Strathern Writing Prize for fiction.
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