Excerpt from Mostly Country, the story, "Queenie Wrestles"
"There are lots of fish in the sea," Queenie said to Kev the two years we dated. She said it with a kind of airy knowingness that left a person feeling slightly foolish for not having realized it first. She announced it during television commercials when beautiful girls came out and looked sideways at the camera and threw back their heads to swallow the refreshing tingle of 7-Up or 5 Alive.
"You'll want to marry someone of your own kind," Queenie said. The words were slipped into conversation between the scalloped potatoes and the canned pears, between "Elvira" and "You Can't Holler Down My Rain Barrel" that she pounded out on the piano, her chaffed voice spiraling for the high notes. As if saying things made them happen. As if authority on a subject equaled control.
But Queenie was wrong. Kev wanted to marry me. Not right away. I think it mostly had to do with Queenie telling him he'd want to marry someone else. He started going to Wadden Old Mennonite Church with me to spite her.
The telephone rings again. "Let me talk to Kevin this time," Queenie says. We're not about to play second fiddle! I can hear her whisper to Ward, mouth grim and smiling. I call Kev who does some deep breathing, drops his head back on his shoulders, and takes the receiver. There's a grueling twenty minute conversation. Kev's expressions change throughout: resolve, unease, clemency. Finally he says, "All right! We'll come." Queenie's faith in the family is restored.
"Kev!" I say as he hangs up the receiver. "We have tickets to Cats! Christian's got a birthday party on Saturday! We agreed, Kev – joint decisions on family."
Kev looks at me with Queenie's eyes and says, "Dad hasn't seen Christian for eight months, Cathy. Besides, Mom says 'everyone' will be there!" he grins, and he's out the back door to water his trees.
I dig portulaca weed in the garden. Goodness knows the portulaca needs digging. Every last tentacle must be pulled by hand and thrown directly into the garbage. Leave an uprooted plant touching soil, and the first thing you know, your garden's overrun again. I yank at roots and mourn the disappearance of my August long weekend, of sunny solitary days with cups of Earl Grey tea and stacks of novels, and I try to gear up for a McClancy family reunion.
We circle the dried-out alkali slough, a white dust clinging to our tires, and pull in the lane at dusk, the last to arrive at McClancy's farm, and there they all are: half a dozen tents and small trailers are settled into the rough dirt and clumpy grass in general disorder, each looking comfortable and directionless, as if people pulled into the yard, and, rushing out to say Hello, forgot to park.
"So this is Christian," they say with a rolling twist over the name as if they are embarrassed by its sound.
"Little Kevie," Queenie says. "Are you Kevie?" she says, loudly amused at Christian's indignant denials.
"Well, you're sure the spittin' image then!" each says in his turn.
"All McClancy," Queenie says. "A McClancy through and through. Couldn't nobody tell ya' different!" Oh well. Submit to the clan. Comply. There's comfort in genes. Someone should use that for a Levi commercial.
I grip Christian's hand and lead him to the bedroom.
"Bed already?" Queenie says.
"It's already nine-thirty," I say. "His bedtime is eight."
"We haven't seen him yet," Queenie says. We have rights too, her careful gaze instructs.
"You'll see him tomorrow," I say, firm in my purpose.
"Mu-um," Christian says, but he makes little resistance. I know when he's tired. A person needs a schedule.
I was brought up in a world compartmentalized into neat orderly packages of time. I was brought up in the world of Hymn #33. It ended on the fourth verse. Church ended at twelve o'clock. Kev's and my holidays end in three weeks, even though we have four to spare. A week to organize life back into routine. Queenie never knows when things will end. Particularly family things. As a result, a long weekend at the lake might stretch into ten days, if the flies aren't too bad. And who can know until they get there, how bad the flies might be. A snappy evening game of cards might flow until 5:00 a.m., with a player here and there eventually losing his grip on his cards, head slipping onto the table where he will be the next morning, spry and refreshed, ready for a breakfast of apple pancakes, Ward's specialty, and coffee. A drink for the road might spin into six, when it is, of course, too dangerous to drive home. So a great flurry is made of spreading sleeping bags, and choosing who sleeps in the west room with the shade that shoots up, and who wants toast and hot chocolate before bed. And in the end, being already so near morning, everyone packs up and heads into town for an early round of golf, grinning and gleeful, zinging off each other in the chilly air, waking an uncle on the way, who sure as shootin' wouldn't want to miss the fun.
I excuse myself eventually and go upstairs to bed, where I lie awake on the lumpy mattress in Kev's old room and listen to the bursts of laughter from below. Ten past two and still going strong. Sometimes I think the McClancy's will live forever, linger on through eternity, shouting to Jesus as he ascends into the clouds, drawing mankind up with him, my family, ready and waiting, in the lead.
"You can't go yet! You haven't had a drink!"
"We're waiting for Ezie who's gone to town for more beer."
"Stay awhile longer though, why don't you?" they call cheerfully as Jesus disappears into the sudden dawn that's floated in unawares.
"Well, come again! Drop by any time!"
Then they turn, joking, to the last bit of broken-off conversation, the half-finished plate of food. Happy in the knowledge that the whole family remained behind.
"Everybody's here!" Queenie says. "Nobody's missing!"
3 excerpts from The Cock's Egg
1. from the story, "From the Inside Out"
Freida counts off what happened in the first five weeks.
One. Her tampons blew up. In this humidity their bodies mushroomed, spread, until they popped the confines of their pink plastic shells.
Two. The legal rep came to their house to say Freida's sewing class for village women would start within the week. He implied embroidery, hand stitched blankets, knitted baby vests.
"I don't sew," Freida said. "I don't know how to sew."
Three. Linford translated recipes into Kikongo for their cook. So now Freida cannot recognize the language of her food.
All Kinds Vegetable
Nge tula manteke na nzungu
2 mbala kuzenga
1 kopo mosi de mbizi
Mbizi? Where would they get mbizi?
Four. She discovered rabbits copulating. That fighting, scrambling in the cage, the female's enraged eyes. When the male mounted, her head half turned in disbelief. He hung for an instant, held the light, and then his sharp squeal, his topple as if felled. It made Freida look at Linford with new eyes.
2. from the story "Gaming"
Bernard writes his initials in black felt pen on the mangoes and grapefruit growing outside his door. B.E. Otherwise the Zairean kids steal them while he sleeps, black shadows sliding through a blacker night, and sell them back to him the next day. Bernard is without house help. Mazwika's mother died last week, so Bernard allowed him two days off to attend the funeral. He offered five zaires to help pay for the burial. This week she died again. Mazwika acted out her death, diarrhea, vomiting, dropping to the floor in a heap. Bernard let him go, but he was damned if he'd give Mazwika five more zaires. Mazwika glides around with his stripped palm frond broom, bakes hard bread, sweeps the compound while the dirty dishes wait, and steals sugar when Bernard is at the hospital. And he watches Bernard without looking, just as Dr. Schappert's wife does, when Kimberly comes to stay.
Kimberly watches Ben initial fruit. He squints into the mango tree, and Zaire's white light hurts his eyes.
"Let me do some, Uncle Bernie!" Kimberly calls. And Bernard smiles, and lifts the child by her sunlit thighs into the dappled mango leaves to reach the high ones.
At nine o'clock Bernard makes a double bed on the floor, strips down to his undershorts and crawls in beside the child, her parents asleep sixty miles away at Moliambu. At ten o'clock the generator cuts. The lights extinguish. Bernard moves his fingers across the child's hip in time to her gentle breathing.
Mazwika enters his employer's house in dawn's grey light, brushing his teeth with a twig. A small snake sleeps in the kitchen, coiled around the doctor's bicycle wheel. Mazwika cracks its head, ties it head to tail and buries it in the backyard to protect against evil.
Mazwika grew up in love with the smell of the whites. Petrol and Baygon, denim and tea, perfumed soap, slick sweat and a dried-corn-husk staleness. The whites set foot outside only to flee snakes or to hop on their bicycles and visit their white friends.
Dr. Bernard is still asleep. He is not in his single bed, but on the living room floor, his arm around the missionary child from Moliambu. The child lies on her stomach, night dress up, her underpants revealed. Dr. Bernard sleeps on his side, his hand in the small of the child's back, his fingernails clear, the texture of onion skin.
3. from the story, "Hippo"
Fioti was scrubbing clothes on the shores of the Kwilu the day the hippo bit Izzie Rosehill in half. They say her strange black mundele body came floating down the river stuffed in an inner tube. Fioti let Dr. Schappert's shirt float away. He splashed into the water, sank to a swim, caught hold of the tube which circled in the gentle current and towed it in. The body was Isabelle Rosehill, the black American Peace Corps woman who arrived last month in Vanga. Must of the intestines and guts had been washed away, the body held together by skin and muscle on the right side.
Fioti ran up the path and met Mama Schappert coming down. His voice choked silent, he just grabbed and pulled her through the star grass and napier to the shore.
Mama Schappert dug her nails in so hard into his flesh, his arm turned white. She said, Where are the rest of them? Where is Melissa? Where is my husband?
Fioti left the laundry piled on a rock, drew in a pirogue and Mama Schappert crawled over the side, slipping on the muck and banging her shins. Fioti paddled upstream, Mama Schappert rode erect, her hand stuffed in her mouth.
Excerpt from novel Half Way Round the Sun
The news is like staring into an eclipse of the sun. Look at it straight and you'll go blind.
Brodie McKinnon prepared. He prepared for the child to be born.
He has not prepared for this.
He stands at the window of his Physics classroom and looks out past his plants. He can see down to the smoking door. Kids huddled in bunches without their coats. Their breath rising, even cloudy spirals.
Roses. He must bring Allegra roses. For a moment, shifting through papers on his desk, hunting for a missing wire, Brodie forgot. Forgot he has a baby. This baby. But remembrance caught him, scorched his stomach, and he dragged his breath and bent into his chair. His Physics students sit quiet in their desks. Some are looking at him, others look away. Brodie says, "When a wave passes from deep water into shallow, the ray refracts toward the normal." He wants to say, Today is canceled. He thinks the child's name, Breanna. The students go about their work, filling water tables, generating waves.
"When water rolls from deep to shallow," he says, "it can create a tidal wave."
Miraculously, the day ends.
Brodie packs his satchel with student lab reports, drives to a florist. Asks for a dozen roses. The young woman behind the counter winks, says, "Oooh, have we got hopes tonight!" then gets glum when Brodie doesn't answer.
At the hospital, Brodie steps off on fifth floor, Neonatal ICU, and wonders how he got here.
Allegra Gillis sits in Neonatal ICU, and imagines a daughter. Fluorescent lights stare down, a worker vacuums. Ninety machines hum. Her baby. Her girl. The baby next to Breanna's isolette was born last night without a brain. His eyes stare out. There's nothing in there. Allegra has to look away. The mother sits beside his isolette. Unmoving. Iceberg face. Allegra feels choked up laughter. You look just like your baby. Looks down at her own baby, eyes closed, legs splayed, blue diaper dwarfing. Her daughter. Inside burning. She will be reckless, this daughter, Breanna. She will play hard, be a tomboy, scrape shins, throw a football, throw herself into her history.
Throw away this picture, Allegra.
A friend of Allegra's sister is sitting on a bench in the waiting room. Allegra hardly knows her. The husband left her two, three months ago. Allegra has seen the woman, Judith, on occasion, at the grocery store, at church. Has never talked to her. What would she say? This morning Judith showed up at the hospital. She wears a dark coat, no earrings, rubber boots.
"You can't get in," Allegra said. "They only allow family. You can't stay. Even my sisters have trouble getting in."
Two hours now. There she sits, on a hard bench in the waiting room. Offering no words.
Allegra looks over at the iceberg mother.
Dr. Norton enters the nursery. The one doctor who never dresses like a doctor, who neglects to take on that identity. Today she's wearing a floral print dress, it shows around, beneath her lab coat. Dr. Norton will not last the month. She carries a chart, moves to the isolette next to Breanna's. Her sleeve touches that mother cast in ice.
"Good morning, Mrs. Angonata." The woman doesn't answer. The doctor pulls up a stool, sits down beside her. Expels a breath. "There's not a lot we can do for your son. This is hard. He's being kept warm and safe."
A twitch. The woman begins shaking. A shimmer. She shimmers in this cold blue-lit neonatal nursery.
"We don't know how long. Some hours? Perhaps several days. No, you don't have to hold him. No, some mothers choose not to. I can offer you little more than honesty. We're here for you. Please, call me any time. Wait, no it's not too hard. It's just the cords get caught. I'll help you lift him out. Of course it's good. This baby needs you." She lifts the empty baby, empty dangling legs, stare fixed on nothing. Lifts him from the mess of wires into a frozen mother's arms. Mother. Doctor. Allegra. Judith on a hard bench. Under fluorescent lights, four women without a language stare into the present.
The angled doors of Foothills Hospital slide apart, and Brodie enters the smells – floor polish, coffee, corned beef, flowers, medication, pus.
Brodie thinks, We exist because of an explosion of stars. O2, CO2, H2.
Brodie got the mail before he drove here. Allegra's mother sent a baby quilt. A starburst pattern. Tiny triangles of brown and blue and yellow, green, patterned, cotton, linen, gabardine, handstitched leftovers from Allegra's childhood. Brodie thinks of Allegra's mother, her hands stitching glimpses of her daughter's past to this baby's future. Praying someone can stitch the baby a childhood.
This morning Brodie explained Schrodinger's cat experiment to his Physics 30s. A box, an unfortunate cat shoved in a box, radioactive material, and a potentially lethal device. This device could kill the cat, depending on whether the radioactive pellet emits a particle and triggers the device. There is a 50-50 chance. The scientists outside the closed box have no idea of the fate of the cat, who thus remains in a state of limbo; the cat alive and dead, or neither alive nor dead, until an observer opens the box and looks inside. Brodie scrubs his hands, dons the yellow gown, opens the heavy door, and steps into the cold sharp neonatal climate. Breathes in its absence. A stroller ride. A winter toque. Tugs on a mother's nipple. A rubber ball. His baby has no history. My sweet, you come from star dust. A series of beeps. A nurse calls, "Brady. Baby Heisler. Got it."
These babies bereft of the smell of oranges, autumn quilts, iced tea. A room full of babies who cannot see the stars. Brodie stands by his baby's isolette. She breathes in great gulps, as if the air were uncertain, retreating from her. Einstein never accepted Schrodinger's quantum mechanics. Einstein said God doesn't play dice with the universe.
Brodie reaches into the baby's isolette, rubs a thumb, like one would rub Aladdin's lamp, against his baby's forehead. Feels the face of agonizing hope burst across his skin. Pulls up a stool. Straightens the cords, arranges the files flung atop her isolette. Collects two pens, some lint, and a piece of napkin from the floor. Order in the world.
Allegra's parents-in-law came to visit. Joyce is not ten minutes in the house before she tells Brodie his child did not sprout from his genes.
"Not Irish genes."
She's scrubbing out Allegra's sink which Allegra scrubbed out this morning. "Our genes are strong."
Allegra looks in the mirror.
"I thought Aunt Betts had a baby born without a chest," says Brodie.
"I don't know how you deal with this disorganization," Joyce says. "Where do you keep the teapots? That wasn't Aunt Betts. That was on your father's side."
"On the counter," Allegra says. "I keep them on the counter."
"You're not putting green pepper in the chicken? It gives Larry gas."
Brodie says, "Real gas or ideal gas?" and when no one gets his Physics joke, "I'll get the car out."
At the hospital, Joyce is put out by the smallness of the scrub room. Larry needs help getting the string tied on his gown. He makes jokes about being in a nightie, about the pretty nurses.
"We have to wash up, Dad," Brodie reminds Larry whose hand rests on the door handle.
"What are we? Contaminated?" Larry jokes.
Brodie herds them in and along the crowded aisles.
The child's awake today.
"Say hello to your grandma and grandpa," Brodie says gently to the baby.
Larry and Joyce stare. The baby stares back.
"They're so wrinkled!" Joyce says, looking everywhere at bodies covered in tape, tubes sticking out of throats. "At least yours looks kind of normal."
"They're the size of goddamn roasting chickens," Larry breathes.
"Hi, baby," Joyce shouts through the arm holes, startling nearby nurses, eyes the tubes and needles, says, "How the hell do you get her out?"
Brodie opens the isolette top, arranges the tubes that bind her, holds the baby out to Larry but Larry's feet don't want to move.
"Larry!" Joyce says, and Larry's feet unglue.
Brodie snaps pictures of Larry, arms filled with the tiny lump of blankets. The oxygen tube slips from the baby's nose onto the floor. Her skin is chaffed and raw around her gastrostomy site.
After some time, Joyce rescues Larry, Brodie snaps more pictures, hands the camera to Allegra who shoots a photo of Brodie and Larry flanking Joyce holding the baby. Joyce says, "Say pickle," into the baby's face. A family moment.
"Okay, here," Joyce thrusts Allegra the swath of blankets. "Larry needs to keep on schedule. Let's go home and eat."
"Good-bye! Good-bye!" she sings, flapping her arms inside the isolette. The baby breathes a rattly sigh.
Brodie retreats into silence. His parents bring back a childhood he'd managed to forget.
On the way out, the floor washer causes them to make a detour past the normal nursery. Joyce peers through the window. "Look at that Pakistani baby crying."
"Babies don't cry, Mom," Brodie says wearily, "because of the colour of their skin."
They step into winter's glare. Hoar frost. Even dead trees look pretty.
Foothills Neonatal ICU breathes story. Stories weave the isolettes, the suction machines, heart monitors, the oxygen tubes, the heaving ventilators. They cling to the hems of nursing uniforms and ride the lapels of doctor's lab coats. They smell, these stories, these angry prayers.
Allegra holds Breanna on her lap. An intravenous needle stuck in the baby's head. Yellow bruises crisscross the shaved scalp where intravenous needles went interstitial. Even needles fail her baby. When she was a child, farm boys caught frogs, cut off their legs, and let them go. The frenetic gyrate of legs, the bulging eyes. Stop it! I hate you! Allegra crying. The boys laughing.
Just being boys.
Breanna fights like that when the nurses suction her. Her fists punch out, head wheels from side to side. Allegra conserves strength for those suction episodes – twelve, fifteen times a day. A tube inserted up Breanna's nose, mouth open in a gag, push farther, farther, Breanna's frog legs jerking, a nurse hauling tubing like a hose snaked down a drain hole. White green gunk sucking up the hose, spastic limbs, her baby's face a caricature of anguish. Allegra sobbing. The nurses step around her, doing their job.
Doctor Summers enters. One of the boys. The head nurse is also one of the boys. This is an old boys' club and Allegra has crashed it. Nobody likes her here. Nobody likes her baby. She asks permission to bathe Breanna. To lift her into a warm water basin. The surprise of skin on skin. Baby, you exist. We're really touching. She knows to arrange the gastrostomy tube inserted in Breanna's stomach, to keep hold of it five inches down the tube, so gravity doesn't pressure and pull it free, to arrange the oxygen tube, the heart monitor attachment tubes, her intravenous lines. Allegra's fingers support the baby at the small of her neck. Breanna finds herself in water, her expression is surprise. Allegra laps water against her belly, the soles of her feet. Cheek against the baby's head until her features lose their tenseness, her head moves to touch cheek to her mother's and she kicks. For one strange moment the institution smell lifts, and Allegra is a live whole mom holding a live whole baby.
No bath. Nurse says no time this morning. Beepers are going off. Babies are trying to die. The nurse has filled a basin with water, then abandons it when the baby next to Breanna goes into cardiac arrest. The nurse moves fast, her elbow catches Breanna's foot which hits the basin, knocks it to the floor, and now the cleaning staff have been called in – more bodies, more equipment.
Allegra hums. It's an act of rebellion. Hums to Breanna who ignores her bath water sweeping across the neonatal floor.
Allegra sees Breanna's life here at Foothills Hospital as one big awful song. Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall. Ninety-nine bottles of beer. Fragments. Bleak and rhythmic. The sickening repetitive pattern. Pass one down. Hand it around. Same tune, same words. Fewer bottles.