First Prize winner, Canadian Authors–Metro Vancouver 2017 Story Contest

Guests Coming… by Elizabeth McLean

Lindy-Lou, 52, glanced at the sender’s logo, slit the envelope open with the tip of her little finger, and fumbled the page open. She squinted and read the opening words, “Notice of Termination of Lease… Tennant, Unit 411… Please be advised…” She didn’t need to read further. Her head knew it and her spine knew it – she was being evicted, and in thirty-four days she would be homeless. Her knees had gone wobbly, and she leaned against the kitchen counter, scrunched the page in her fist, and tossed the crumpled ball into the bin.

The previous week she’d wanted to celebrate her 52nd, and not having Barry to share the birthday cake with she’d walked down the hall of her floor just after 11 pm banging on doors and shouting, “Don’t hide in the trees, you monkeys…Come out and wish me many happy returns!” Three days later, the Manager of the Coop, his purple tie as rumpled as his mousy hair, stood grimly at the door and called her antics “the last straw.” She reached out to stroke his arm. “Honey, don’t get upset. No harm done, is there? You know these people; they party till after midnight.” Then asked with a giggle, “Would you like to visit? I could be your mama, you know.” He didn’t giggle and he didn’t visit. She’d made herself believe that because she was so quick-witted and intriguingly wacky they’d allow her to stay forever. But apparently not.

She thought of Barry. He’d taken five years of her life – and ‘taken’ was the right word because Barry was not a giver. He’d eaten up her time and good will, first with some sweet talk and fancy cocktails, then with a real or imagined bout of colitis, which went on for too long and made her into a full-time caregiver. His fussing was boundless. He’d ransack the dresser looking for the Drivers’ License he swore he had left on top of it, and leave the drawers open, his underwear tossed on the floor. He’d call her cooking, “So so, so what?” which made her feel useless every time. Two weeks earlier, after he’d whacked her across the neck with a rolled up newspaper shouting “No! I’ll not shut my trap – I’ll shut yours!” she left two boxes of his stuff in the Recycling Room and pushed the dresser against the front door of her unit. He got the message and took himself to his daughter’s.

She thought to call him now to see how he was doing and heard his voice right away. “How have you been Barry boy – this is the love of your life with an update on her doings.” He didn’t hang up, which was a good sign. “Are you surviving with that wild offspring of yours? Let me guess – she’s got a new man?” A grunt came through and then a question, “Are you lonely or something? Why are you calling me, you…woman – ”

“I’m well, you Barry. I’ll be moving to a new place soon. I don’t know where to yet, but move I must.”

“Don’t tell me…Don’t tell me… They’re kicking you out – ”
”They are. Happy now?”
She heard some crackling sounds and knew that he was reaching for a bottle of beer and ripping the cap off against the kitchen doorframe – thankfully not her doorframe. She also knew that he was in his pyjamas, unshaven, his knobby feet bare, his toenails too long – men don’t change.

She allowed him his time, then asked, “Is that daughter of yours a compassionate woman? You better think before you answer.”

There was another grunt and then a question. “Compassionate? Look who’s talking. Don’t tell me you know what compassion means?”

She made a glottal sound nearly choking on her saliva but gave him a full answer. “Compassion is when we find that we can do for others more than we originally thought we would want to. Like when we make our little hearts swell into bigger hearts, and open our homes to people who don’t have one. Remember?” He hung up.

She went to the bathroom, brushed her teeth mercilessly, and clicked his number again. He was there and whispering, “You’re not thinking of moving into my daughter’s, are you?”

She said coldly, “I’m not thinking about anything today, Barry. Maybe you can think of something for me.” He answered mockingly, “Ah, so the frozen lump has melted a bit? You’re not throwing people out onto the icy pavement anymore, eh? Well look, I can’t go into this now. My daughter and her fiancé are in the next room. Around here I have to behave civilly 24/7. Why don’t you just take a pill or two and wait till I call you.” She hung up before he did.

It came to her that she was not really in crisis. She had enough food for the rest of the week, enough pills for six weeks, and the government cheque would arrive by the last day of the month, which was four days away. She’d not spend it on food but eat up the frozen lumps that have sat in the freezer for too long – sausages, potato dumplings… whatever – and finish off the boxes of cereals left over from Barry’s reign. But before vacating her unit she’d buy a carton of ice cream for the new tenant, because when she’d moved into the Coop seven years earlier that’s what she found in the freezer – a gift of mocha ice cream she polished off in one evening, savouring the sweetness of her new beginning.

Ah, memories. Ah, Barry. By now, he’s probably told his daughter about their fights, including the one in the Coop’s garage, when they drove the pneumatic door off the rails with their lumpy bodies. Ah Barry. His daughter was likely as obtuse as her dad and would not agree to take in a lodger, not even one willing to pay two-thirds of her monthly income – that would make $1,200 – a nice round sum. He was probably paying her nothing for room or board. He just had to behave like a good boy. Neat!

So where would she live? Well, there was The Residence. Rumour had it that it’d been upgraded but she hasn’t been there in years. She had dispatched her own sister there a couple of years earlier when she found it necessary to cut short her visit because the artful dame was getting cute with Barry. She’d not spoken to Claudia since. But The Residence probably had a waiting list. Yes! The men’s wing sometimes had vacancies, but the women’s wing always had a waiting list. After the renovation the list was probably twice as long. Did they make the dining hall twice as long? It used to be so crowded and noisy that the monitor had to blow a whistle for a long time before the diners shut up so that he could read the announcements. They should’ve elongated the stainless steel counter to run the entire length of the hall. And the wilted Jesus falling off the cross – his hair shaggy, his crown of thorns askance? Christ, did he ever need to be renovated.

And the library? That vault of biblical wisdom where one could inhale – and not just the cigarettes – because the two huge windows at the opposite ends aired the room promptly. Let’s hope they left it as it was.

The Residence. She had stayed there for five days as an emergency guest waiting for the Coop to let her move in. Two years later, when she found Barry on the lawn, despondent because his Coop application had been denied, she was ready to send him there too, but on second thought took him in. Any decent man would’ve found it in himself to reciprocate now that she needed a place to live.

That left her sister, what’s her name again – Claudia. A specimen, if there ever was one. Former ballet dancer, former model, former junkie, and all around practical woman. Good with the iron. At home, she’d press family sheets and towels even if the label said “No ironing necessary.” Called their mum a god-damn wimp and locked their dad out of the house for good by changing the locks and threatening to call the cops. Finished high-school, came home waving her diploma and yelling at mum and sis (both of them dropouts): ”You chickens. You should’ve come to my graduation and smelled the roses.” Then ran off with a guy on parole who wrote poetry. But over the years must have lost her way and could be anywhere now, in a fancy loft in New York, on an oil rig in Alberta, in jail…or did they call them ‘correctional institutions’ now? Claudia’s name was on the fridge, but when she pressed the button, a voice said it was the number was not in service. No surprise there.

Thirty-four days left. Ample time to do some ironing and some strategizing where her next step should take her. She’d talk to Barry again for sure, if only to hear him mouth the monikers he had thought up for her over the years: ‘Bus Girl,’ because she didn’t drive, ‘Mrs. Windex,’ because she cleaned the windows frequently and compulsively, and the worst of them, ’Mama Lou,’ because she was nine years older than him and he was keen to rub it in. What she loved was his smooching, like when he tussled her hair, cupped her breasts and chewed on her nipples, and when she squealed, set her rolling to the edge of the bed where he’d ‘save’ her from falling off, and roll back with her to the other edge, the pillows flying, the headboard thumping, the affronted neighbour banging on the wall. How neat it was! How wild!!

She should probably look for a jobette – part time – where they don’t ask too many personal questions when hiring. They just give you a broom or a serving tray and bingo, money is coming in. Would she go back to her last employer and tell her that she was better now and would be a good sport? No. Who needs to mess around with potting soil and houseplants spruced up “For Quick Sale” that bargain hunters would kill with overwatering or neglect?

Has she ever had to sleep under the bridge? No. Has she ever gone hungry? Not since the day her dad sent her to bed without dinner for crayoning his portrait on the kitchen wall that made him look like a raging gorilla. That was some four decades ago. That was something!

So what was left to do for today? A bubble bath? Without Barry, too boring. Baking a carrot loaf? She would need guests to share it with. She picked up her phone again to call somebody, anybody, but it snapped shut in her hand before the names came up. She walked to the front door, opened it wide and yelled into the hall: “It’s official, I’ll be leaving! Have it your way, monkeys. You can come now and say good-bye.” Then stood still listening. A cat meowed in the parking lot and a fire engine wailed from the highway. Lindy-Lou, 52, stepped back into her unit and left the door ajar for her guests to come in.

 

 

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