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Anna moved downstairs to the basement, where she learned the meaning of living in a damp and cold dungeon. When she had the wood stove burning, the cold basement, cluttered with soiled laundry, bras, panties, halter tops, yoga pants, short skirts, and athletic apparel hanging from the clothesline, and a growing collection of paperbacks, pocketbooks, and hardcover books on the shelves that once held jam and jellies jars and preserves, she felt comfortable. The house was hersole asset, and living downstairs she learned firsthand how rundown and small the basement of the dwelling was.
After she received a layoff notice as a residential care worker at a group home, where she worked for eighteen years, she spent more time at home and first noticed how promiscuous her partner was. As she searched the local job openings on the Internet through her desktop computer, she could not avoid overhearing, as Jenn got intimate with her boyfriends and girlfriends upstairs. Anna and Nick had lived in the house with her parents, but neither sibling ever overheard their parents making love in the house. Listening to Jenn’s debauchery was a novel and even an appalling experience, but Anna refused to move from her own house, despite Nick urging her to find an apartment and move. She could not live with Nick, though, simply because his wife would not allow her. Anna was untidy, kept late hours, and the two women never got along, his wife complained, but Nick thought the true reason lay elsewhere.
Anna set up an improvised office in the basement, after she accused Jenn of hacking into her e-mail and vandalizing her bicycle. She reproached Jenn for leaving a video of a threesome she had with former high school classmates, from her smartphone on the computer they shared. In a fit of rage, Jenn shoved and plowed appliances and furniture from the living room into the kitchen. Jenn destroyed living room furniture, as she moved the television, computer monitor, and desktop tower into the kitchen, and punched a hole in the drywall.
Downstairs, Anna confronted the reality she could be a slob. She stared at the evidence cluttered around the desk. Mosquitoes buzzed around the dried crust from the reheated pizza, pastry leftovers and composting apple cores and blackening banana peels. Fruit flies hovered and flew around the hardened sauce from the canned chili she heated in the microwave oven. As Anna finished her latest correspondence course assignment on her laptop computer, she told Nick, “The other day I realized throughout our relationship Jenn never bought a single appliance for the house. Now she drinks so much liquor and beer she can’t afford to pay for the cable television or the internet.” The partners agreed Jenn should pay these utilities as her fair half of the household expenses, since Anna never, on principle, watched television. She also preferred to check and send e-mail from the workstations in the computer room at the public library.
Meanwhile, Anna applied to teacher’s college in suburbia of the sprawling metropolis of Toronto, at York University, located north of the fuel storage terminals, expressways, and high-rise apartment towers. At first, the administrators thought someone stole her identity, since the clerk who processed her application thought her too old to apply as a university student. Then an admissions officer realized, yes, they accepted mature students, growing in number as laid off factory workers, tradespersons, and stay-at-home parents and their offspring returned to college to upgrade their qualifications. Then, a front desk clerk, with an aged, gravelly voice, who smoked a few packages of cigarettes a day, reassured her that, even though she was a woman and they did not suspect she was a sex offender, she was too old to apply to live in the student residence. So much for the provincial human rights code, Anna replied and slammed the telephone. When the residence manager, worried a student might mention human rights, called back, Anna simply decided it was not worth the time, trouble, and merely hung up the telephone.
Finally, Anna decided she needed to tidy up house, as if she was moving out. After deciding to discard junky appliances from downstairs, she called Nick to borrow his four-wheel drive pickup truck and ask for help disposing of the broken down laundry dryer and the vintage refrigerator. Nick heard more than enough of the trouble, arguments, and fights in which she was entangled in with her ex-girlfriend, so he procrastinated. When he reluctantly agreed to help and lend her his truck after several more delays and excuses, he showed up at the house, but Jenn confronted him at the door as they tried to carry the dryer upstairs and through the porch. He couldn’t believe the extent of the skirmish. Anna was relieved she managed to persuade him to help, but Jenn actually pushed and yelled at Nick, who realized he needed to keep his cool. When he saw the argument Jenn instigated with Anna he stepped outside the house and waited in the pickup truck until the confrontation cooled down.
“Where are you taking the dryer, Anna?” Jenn demanded, stepping in front of her former lover, pushing her.
“The dump is closed today. It’s a Sunday.”
“The dryer is broken, Jenn. We’re hauling it away to the dump; the piece of junk is twenty years old, not worth fixing. Don’t you want the basement tidier?”
When Jenn hissed and stepped out of the doorway, Nick beckoned to Anna. They loaded the broken front load dryer into the back of the truck, with a crash. While he fiddled with the button for the FM radio, tuning into the Beaverbrook radio station that played pop hits from yesteryear, and drove down the highway, Anna noticed through the rear view mirror and back window a police cruiser tailgating them, and she recognized Constable Dias.
“Jenn said Dias started his policing career in Northcliff police, and then he went to the provincial police, before settling down with the Beaverbrook municipal police.”
“What do I care?” Nick asked.
They mused, joked, and chuckled over the nickname, Car Wash, Dias after a deaf mute, David, who grew up on the nearby Ojibwa reserve, recognized him having sex with Jenn in the back seat of his crew cab pickup truck in the coin-operated car wash. Dias figured he had nothing to worry about with the hearing-impaired young man, and carried on as if David didn’t exist. Soon, though, townspeople knew how to gesture “sexual intercourse” and “car wash” in American Sign Language and a few did so to much hilarity in Dias’ presence.
When they pulled into the country road, Dias’ municipal police cruiser followed them, and Anna wondered aloud why he was pursuing them. With a beer tucked between his clenched legs, Nick took evasive action and drove down the maze of roads until he lost the police car, which returned to the highway and parked at the turnoff, waiting. The siblings hauled the dented, broken white appliance dryer down the highway and to the private landfill down the highway outside the abandoned unorganized township where Nick dumped the ashes from his wood stove.
“Do you think he’s after us for illegal dumping?”
“This is a private landfill, and I know the owner.”
“Are you sure?”
“I better be sure; it’s a hefty fine.” Anna looked at him with an expression of apprehension. “This is close to where Dad once hoped to own a farm,” Nick said, “until he realized farming in Northwestern Ontario would likely lead to bankruptcy. He realized you’d make more money with a nine to five job, or shiftwork, in our town pretty quick.”
“Yeah.” Anna remembered from their childhood the long hikes and drives along the bush roads around this area north of town as their father yearned and dreamed of owning his own farm, as he had in the Azores.
As they dumped the dryer from the back of the truck, the door popped open and frilly, lacy lingerie spilled out. “This is Victoria’s Secrets stuff. It looks nice. It’s expensive, isn’t it? You sure you want to chuck it?”
“I don’t want to throw it out, but she’s lost her figure. She’s drinking and eating so much junk food she’s bloated and her face is puffy. I doubt it would fit her.”
Anna started to worry about being confronted or charged by the police; at least one of Jenn’s boyfriends and girlfriends was a police officer, but Nick tried to reassure her. He handed her a beer as he dropped down the tailgate of his pickup gate parked at the edge of the country road beside the small garbage dump.
Then Nick mentioned he had chatted with their uncle in Toronto, who still believed that the shock of her revelation that she was lesbian had killed their father, their uncle’s closest brother.
“I already talked to Uncle Rick about it. I thought I, we, cleared this up.”
“Uncle still thinks the shock of Dad learning you’re queer killed him. He remembers talking with Dad on the telephone one Sunday afternoon, soon after you told him. They were both shocked and stunned. Then the very next day you called and informed him Dad died, on the couch where he took a nap, right after he had that heart-to-heart with him on the telephone.”
“Talking to his brother long distance may’ve stressed him so much he suffered a fatal coronary.”
“I shouldn’t have said anything, but he still has this theory about how his closest brother died. You know he’s been in Canada for decades, but he’s still old school Catholic and Portuguese so being lesbian isn’t worth a medal in his books.”
“I thought most traditional Portuguese men don’t care for women as long as they do what their told by their husbands and fathers.”
“Anna, sometimes you might consider sometimes it doesn’t pay to advertise; in fact, it might be counterproductive.”
“I’m heading down to Toronto shortly and I’ll try to sort this out with Uncle.”
“There’s nothing to sort out: Uncle Rick grew up Portuguese in the Azores. He went to church Sundays and every morning during Lent. He was raised a strict Catholic and went to religious school. He’ll believe what he’s taught, like any normal, sane guy, no matter what you argue. You can’t erase his past and upbringing in the old country.”
“He’s been living in cosmopolitan Toronto for decades, since he was a young man.”
“Since when you are you going to Toronto?”
“Since I decided to return to university.”
“At age forty?” Anna nodded. “Are you serious? Where will you stay?”
“In Uncle’s rooming house, if he has a room.”
“He does prefer to have men as tenants because they tends to give him less trouble.”
“I’ve stayed with him before in his basement apartment so it shouldn’t be a problem. We actually stayed out of each other’s way and got along fabulously.”
Anxious to assuage her worries, Nick insisted they drink another beer as they leaned back on his lowered truck tailgate. They reminisced about childhood and their father’s thwarted farming dreams. Then Anna worried about the beers they drank, since she suspected Jennifer had sent her police friend after them. So Nick decided to take the logging road around the long way, along a circuitous, bumpy route back into town to avoid a police vehicle. Since he simply no longer had patience to wait, he told her to wait again until next week to try again with the aged refrigerator, which needed to be emptied and moved. He was surprised, but her assumptions were correct: the police officer followed Nick’s truck back to her house, and all along the route she badgered them about drinking and driving. She kept turning her head and told him positively the police officer was the same man with whom Jenn had an intermittent affair. She figured Jenn called, urging him to harass them.
The following week when Nick tried to haul out the refrigerator with Anna, Jenn stood at the door upstairs and confronted her. Nick decided to wait in the truck outside, while she guarded the refrigerator, leaning upright against the porch doorframe. Jenn started to argue and quarrel with her, but Anna tried to explain.
“Jenn, this refrigerator belonged to Dad when he worked as a caretaker. This fridge is obsolete and not energy efficient, and, in fact, it’s over thirty years old. The teachers at the high school where he was a caretaker gave him the fridge from their staffroom because he loved gardening and could easily stock freezers and fridge compartments with vegetables. But it’s antiquated and draining electricity.”
Anna reminded Jenn she had trouble paying her share of the utility bills, an assertion that triggered an argument which spilled onto the neighbourhood street. When Jenn saw Nick clenching his smartphone to video the pair as they squabbled, she lunged towards him, but she drew back, as he clenched his fists ominously. Instead, she held out her open hands to block the view and stepped back inside the house. Anna called Nick for help, and they carried the refrigerator down the yard sidewalk and lowered and eased it into the box of the truck. When they turned, the officer parked his cruiser behind the truck, blocking an exit through the driveway.
“Is everything all right?” Dias demanded.
“No. He’s taking away a fridge.”
“An old fridge—that’s mouldy, energy inefficient, and should be thrown out.”
The officer consulted in private with Jenn. Then he glared at Anna ominously before, gripping his utility belt and walkie-talkie, he strode over and chatted with Nic. He walked over to the idling police cruiser and Anna sensed the animus and hostility he exuded as he drove away. The siblings hauled the old fridge to the landfill, where they drank a few more beers at Nick’s insistence. Later that afternoon, towards the early evening, Anna saw the police cruiser parked partway on the lawn and stepped outside the house and approached Dias in his car.
“Pardon me, but this is private property. The oil from your tires will kill the grass and nobody invited you or called. Are you trying to harass me?”
Constable Dias emerged from the cruiser, hurtled her against the trunk, handcuffed her slender wrists, and threw her into the back seat. He drove to the doughnut shop where he ordered coffee from the drive through window. “That’s what you get for cocking off at a police officer.”
“So much for freedom of speech.”
“It’s not about free speech; it’s about respect.” As Dias drove through the streets, towards what she expected was the municipal police station and jail, she started to sob. “Your girlfriend is not an evil woman.”
“I didn’t say she was. I know she has plenty of friends.”
“Why don’t you just try to make some friends yourself? You’re looking for work? Your girlfriend says you’re looking for work.”
“I plan to go back to university, teacher’s college.”
“So you want to teach?”
“I want to try.”
“How is an arrest for assaulting a police officer going to look on your background check for a job?”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“Don’t push me.” Handcuffed in the back of the police cruiser, she pounded her head against the caged partition and moaned. “Listen, I’m willing to let this pass. Just understand your girlfriend is going through a difficult time.”
“She was my partner, but it sounds like she’s your girlfriend now.”
“Remember I warned you about cocking off.” Dias abruptly stopped the motor vehicle a block from her house, clenched her elbow, clutched her shoulder, and flung her out of the back seat onto the street. On the curb of the residential neighbourhood, on a route she walked every afternoon and morning for groceries or mail at the post office, he unlocked the handcuffs and released her. She strode the block home in her slippers, rubbing the welts the handcuffs left on her wrists.
Anna managed to clean up the basement and even installed a pump to drain off the water that seeped through the walls after she tried a few years ago to complete some renovations to a basement room that went wrong. Jenn asked what her intentions were in tidying up the house and cleaning up the basement, and she replied she intended to make the house more hospitable.
Scheduled to start studies in the education program in a few weeks, Anna packed a single suitcase, her handbag, and a backpack. She walked to the heritage train station on Railyardside Street of her hometown of Beaverbrook. Anna waited for the transcontinental passenger train in the refurbished waiting room, renovated by a municipality dreaming of prosperity, reliving the glory days of railroad travel. When Anna realized Jenn followed her to the train station, driving the compact car she kicked and crashed countless time out of sheer recklessness and drunkenness, Anna did not want to speak with her. Anna stood beside the empty police cruiser in the parking lot, where Constable Dias gossiped with a cab driver, smoking cigarettes, drinking takeout coffee. After Anna boarded the train and settled into his seat in the coach section, she spotted from her window seat Jenn, sobbing, looking distraught, slouching on a bench. In fact, when she saw her crying uncontrollably on the train platform she pulled down the train curtain and shuffled to the food counter for a coffee and a bag of potato chips, salty snacks to take the bad taste, the bitter, metallic flavour from her dry mouth and chapped lips.
Anna arrived safely in Toronto. Weeks after she settled into her education studies at York University, she walked into the twenty-four hour study area of Scott Library, where she had her nightly routine at textbooks and academic journals and the library computer, without any sense of anticipation or foreboding. So Anna was shocked when she found Jennifer sitting at a hardwood study table, alongside students with their textbooks, reading a bus and subway system map, looking bewildered, lost, forlorn, as if she was waiting for her. And she treated her former lover as a scourge to avoid, maybe even a serial rapist or killer, but she managed to stay calm to a limited extent. She disappeared in the reference section, with her laptop, index cards, lecture notes, and thumb drive, in her handbag. She defensively clutched her textbooks against her breasts, which she had taken to wearing in a pushup bra, since she felt lonely and needed to attract flattering attention. Then, when she saw Jenn pacing, Anna decided to disappear in the stacks.
After Anna spotted through the shelves of books Jenn strolling the length of the stacks, she locked herself in the wheelchair accessible washroom. Anna called her brother on her brand new cellphone, which she could barely afford and which had only a few minutes of airtime. Nick confessed Jenn called, begging him to tell her where she might find my sister. Feeling sympathy for her, believing her well-intentioned, she provided the information she demanded, and, disclosed Anna’s whereabouts and routine. Knowing Anna could be as regular as an atomic clock, Jenn had no difficulty locating her, tracking her down on campus.
A few days later, looking forward to a cappuccino while she studied for an educational psychology multiple-choice test, having completed an exam at noon, Anna went into her favourite coffee shop. She saw Jenn, who returned from a trip to nearby Yorkdale shopping mall with a shopping bag stuffed with new designer clothes, drinking coffee. When Anna saw Jenn pour something from a brown paper bag into her coffee, she realized she visited the Yorkdale mall liquor store and interpreted this as a warning to stay away. She decided to beat an inauspicious retreat and rode the bus and subway to her uncle’s house.
Then, in early February, Uncle Rick warned her about an urgent call from Nick. The family home she inherited, the house on Railyardside Street, where she grew up happily, with her parents and a brother, the house where she had fond childhood memories, had burned to a shell in its corner lot, in the neighbourhood of the Moose Hall and the Masonic Lodge. The volunteer fire department fought the blaze that raged through the house, which Anna abandoned to Jenn to attend the faculty of education at York University. When the fire started David, the deaf-mute Ojibwa, who lived down the street, walked his dog down the back alley. When he saw the fire he dashed inside the burning house, but the door to Jenn’s bedroom was locked. Sensing someone inside, he kicked the door open. He managed to carry her body out before the whole building went up in flames, but, even though Jenn appeared alive to a firefighter, wearing an oxygen tank and masks, she perished in the house from smoke inhalation. The fire marshal thought the fire was suspicious but leaned towards a cigarette igniting the mattress or bedroom carpet.
“Shouldn’t you come home?” Nick asked.
“Where is home? It’s kind of a relative concept.”
Nick snorted with disgust, since he possessed no interest in philosophical discussion and worried about the ruins and insurance and other unsettled matters. Still, he realized Anna, at forty, no longer cherished material possessions or property, when many of her peers were prospering financially.
“So maybe you should put in a claim with insurance,” Nick said, as the cackle from static filled up the airwaves of the long distance line.
“Do you think she even paid the insurance for the house? I bet she fell behind on payments or didn’t pay altogether.”
“She turned that house into a crack house.”
“It’s curious you should mention it; I actually watched her smoke crack in that house. I never saw anybody smoke crack and wondered what the big hullaballoo was about crack, but, with her bong and vaporizer, she taught me: nothing’s exciting about smoking crack. I’m sorry; it took me a while to finally realize, with the benefit of hindsight and distance, she was an addict of the worst kind, but I fell for her because superficially she was a charming and charismatic person and had a beautiful body, when it wasn’t punctured by needle marks.”
“I know all that bull. I did grow up with her and we attended high school together. I tried to warn you to stay away, but you chose to learn the hard way. That’s why your friends tended kept their distance and stayed away, except for you. She seemed to have a stranglehold over you.”
“Stranglehold is a good word.”
“I’ll give them a call and ask what I can do.”
“Give who a call?”
“The police, the municipality.”
“Why call them?”
“Because a burnt structure needing demolition stands at our old home address. The town probably wants somebody to clean up the mess before issuing warnings and fines.”
“Her family can look after her remains. I assume the funeral home is taking care of her?”
“She’s gone, somewhere in a morgue or funeral home. The more I think the more I realize it’s not my business.” His voice faded behind the background noise of a radio as he puffed on his cigarette and coughed. “To be honest, I never had much experience with a crazed woman who burned down her own house, or, I stand corrected, may’ve burned the house they lived in. I don’t know why I bothered to call you. You’re living like a holy sister. Nuns and monks take vows of silence, stay cloistered and aren’t supposed to talk, right? So, I better say good-bye.”
“Wait,” Anna shouted hastily into the pay telephone. “You did right, you did good. Thanks for calling.”
“No, don’t worry about us. Forget about your friends, family, and hometown. If you’re okay and maintain your grade point average, everything is okay, life has purpose and meaning.” Then Nick muttered a curse and threw his switched off his smartphone.
From the pay telephone in a building at the edge of campus, Anna looked around the darkness and stillness and the lights reflected in the pool of the commons on suburban campus of the university, which featured concrete monoliths interrupted by rolling green lawns and roadways and trails. She walked through the still, tranquil night, quiet and peaceful for the city suburbia and campus, along the pathway, across the campus to the twenty-four hour bus stop. She met only a racoon, which paused to eat fried chicken from a discarded fast food paper bag. The racoon tensed, ready to bolt, but Anna veered course, walking on the lawn of the arboretum around him, so he could finish the meals of leftover pieces of breaded processed chicken meals from his fidgety, tiny paws in peace. Then, when Anna arrived at the abandoned bus stop at Finch Avenue, she marveled at a bat fluttering crazily about the streetlights. She realized she was safe; she escaped the wild woman she had loved and survived.
Then she received her second call on her cellphone from Corporal Dias, who, she speculated, was acting in his capacity as a police officer, or Jenn’s former paramour. Still a Beaverbrook municipal police officer, he mumbled over the cellphone, he was in the city for a conference on provincial code offenses and by-law enforcement. He asked to meet Anna at the large Starbucks café at King and Yonge Street downtown. Wearing a suit and tie, he look decidedly less intimidating and, after he settled down with an espresso, she thought she’d never expected in her life she’d see him sipping an espresso in a tony takeout cup, but he said he just started the twelve step program, attending Beaverbrook’s Alcoholic Anonymous meetings.
“So why am I here? I mean, should I be asking for your identification?”
“No, I’m actually acting as an emissary for your brother.” Surprised he used a word like emissary, Anna thought the term unusual for his tough cop diction. “You know I’m actually Portuguese-Canadian.” Anna did not say, with the name Dias, she somehow thought he was Jewish or Spanish. “In fact, as soon as I’m done here, I’m taking a streetcar west along King Street to Little Portugal. I actually grew up in a neighbourhood around Ossington and College Street.”
He handed a torn envelope and Anna opened a folded letter and cheque from an insurance company. She marveled over the numbers printed on the cheque: one hundred and nineteen thousand dollars and thirteen cents, payable for the fire damage to the house and related costs. So Jenn had paid for insurance, and somehow Anna became the beneficiary, which made sense since it was her house. As she examined the check in amazement, she thought she could use the proceeds for graduate school studies, even though she was scheduled to start a paid practicum, teaching grade six students at a public elementary school in Cabbagetown. Then he handed her a small cardboard box, which she tore open, with the return address of a Beaverbrook funeral home. The parcel contained Styrofoam packaging material and a black marble urn, which, he said, contained Jennifer’s ashes. He apologized, wiped a tear from his eye, and firmly shook her limp hand. He dashed out of the Starbucks to catch the westbound King streetcar waiting at the intersection outside. Although he finally appeared a genuinely warm person, even a gentleman, Anna only remembered an intimidating cop, an enforcer ready to kill someone if they made the wrong move, said the wrong word, or gave the wrong look. She hoped she never saw him in her life again.
She took the urn of ashes and cheque in her handbag and rode the subway and bus to her room upstairs in her uncle’s rooming house. She took the urn and check into the washroom. She incredulously glanced at the check, which looked genuine. Then she took the cheque and held the flame from a roommate’s cigarette lighter to the edge of the fine thick paper and held it over the toilet bowl. The check started to burn, but in a flash she remembered how hard her parents had worked and how they had paid for the house for cash and how indeed it had been her house, until Jennifer had moved in and taken over the place through her bullying and bluster. She remembered the student loans and the expenses associated with the costs of an education and the fact that with the check she would even be able to rent her own apartment, a bachelor’s apartment or a one bedroom. She burned her finger as she smothered the flame that singed the corner. Then she stuck her reddened, singed finger into the urn of cremains, held her fingertip to her nose, and gently licked. Although she could not believe her own urges and compulsions, Anna remembered the time Jennifer slapped and punched her and pushed and shoved into the television and computer, breaking the device that held her work and memories, and even deliberately spit on her. She remembered a law student explaining the concept of consent to assault in domestic abuse cases. In a sudden surge of anger, she spilled the ashes into the bowl and flushed the toilet. The black marble urn she smashed and cracked against the bathroom sink, and it was so strong and durable she decided later the container would make an ideal cookie jar, even though she never ate cookies and would more likely store protein bars inside. She looked at the ashes that stained the sides of the toilet bowl, and, started to writhe and heave and vomit, forcing her to grip the sides of the toilet and stare at her desecration as she retched. She puked and flushed the toilet again, rinsing the vomitus and ashes clinging to the porcelain bowl down the drain, to try to cleanse both their souls, erase their memories, and clear their minds.