Chapter 8 excerpt

Odele Irwin and Griffin Lewis married in 1956 and they had Martin, their only child, within that first year. Truth be known, Odele and Griffin weren’t in love. They’d never been in love – not with each other, nor with anyone else. This lack of love, admitted, fortified the bond between them. It drew them together. Recognizing the destructive nature of being at odds, they maintained a façade of love and wondered how many other couples were doing the same thing. The mostly unspoken partnership suited their individual needs. Griffin wanted a wife and Odele needed a child.

Raised on a potato farm two hours north of Saint John, New Brunswick, Odele had moved to the city to attend secretarial school at sixteen, after which she secured a full time job at the Rexall Drug Store a block away from her one bedroom apartment in the Tobias Building on Prince Edward Street.

As her two brothers and high school friends settled into family life, Odele never ceased to enthuse about the joy she found in living alone. Her regular bragging about soda crackers and butter for supper, dollops of vanilla ice cream and maple syrup on her morning waffles and “the usual” – a club sandwich at the Crown Café at lunchtime – ruffled feathers at the drug store where customers insisted that she’d be filling out her petite figure in no time flat if she continued on her path of nutritional deprivation. Espousing the virtues of white rice, white bread and biscuits – everything white instead of anything green – got her into hot water with the pharmacist when he lost count of the pills he was counting to shush the flow of commentary as Odele pontificated about being fit as a fiddle and never gaining a pound. She went so far as to claim that the vanilla in the ice cream helped maintain her girlish.

Odele went farther still and made sure as many customers as possible saw her buying bottles of Andre Chenier New York Apple Blossom Bubble Bath, Motion Picture Magazine and more licorice whips than you could shake a stick at. If Odele Irwin had her druthers, food and movies would be black and white forever.

Propped up in her apple blossom bubbles, Odele flipped the pages of her magazine and sometimes warbled variations on popular tunes, bending notes like supple alder branches on a narrow trail into the woods on the western perimeter of their land. Pulling them aside and letting them snap back as she passed, dry twigs crackling under her feet, like the flower-scented bubbles popping around her. In this way she reminisced about her childhood adventures on the farm, but the smell of skunk cabbage in the marsh in spring and the crunch of snow underfoot in winter couldn’t block out the memory of her father’s ranting – it wasn’t what he said, but the total attention he demanded and the curious way her mother absorbed it until, full up, Odele supposed, she stopped darning her husband’s sock and slumped forward. Finished. So death was a full up thing and he’d filled her full, thought Odele. She’d had a bellyful of his suppertime rants, his hairy fist pounding the table, making the cutlery jump and water jiggle in the glass in front of her and that’s where her mother pinned her unblinking eyes until it was over.

Odele’s eyes darted back and forth between her parents. She tried to be still, pressing her lips together to keep her mouth shut. She nodded, wondering if this was how they did it in the movies, when movie stars were paid to behave different than how they really felt. In real life movie stars had fancy clothes and cars while in the movies they were plagued with problems not unlike her own. If he kept yelling, she used the food in front of her to keep her quiet, pushing fork-loads of green beans into her mouth, but as soon as she’d swallowed, she’d jump up to yell at Nestor for yelling at her mother and then she’d yell at her mother for just sitting there, taking it.

It came in waves, the father-daughter anger. They carried on like the tide in Bay of Fundy, rushing in and draining out, back and forth, with Odele glancing sideways to determine where her father was at with his bellowing. Odele’s mother sat, looking at the water in her glass, unable to speak or eat.

Nestor’s chewing reminded Odele of the cows. It wasn’t a civilized up and down action like her mother’s delicate mastication, but more of sideways grinding, a jutting of the jaw, left to right and her father was always right. He’d been right and no one had given him credit yet again.

If he’d been a drinker he could have stormed off to the Tap Room of the Centennial Hotel and bellowed at the barkeep until nightfall, but Nestor was death on drinking and after dinner he sat in front of the radio, shushing anyone who made a noise.

Maisy had fretted about the beans being bitter while she ironed pillow cases pulled in fresh-scented from the line. She’d worried about deer coming out of the woods at dusk to feast her crisp lettuce – even though she’d spent many hours lashing metal fencing to posts to keep them out. All the while her husband ranted, nearly frothing at the mouth about a vague injustice he’d barely endured, an utterance overheard and ignored in the moment, but brought back to the farm, to Maisy, like a proud barn cat with a mouse, to show Maisy the indignity of his suffering, a fate he brought on himself through the cowardice he preferred to think of as stoicism.

In the summer of 1936, Maisy died and without missing a beat, Nestor turned and began hurling his high pitched railings at Odele, like javelin tips landing sideways in the tender field of her heart. Odele was fourteen when she took over the chores – the watering and weeding, the picking, trimming and slicing of green beans, making meals, just like before. It fell to her to tend the garden, carefully latching bean tendrils to the brittle netting that stayed out all year, weathered to grey. The beans were blind – reaching out into the vastness of the universe – in the opposite direction, until Odele unfurled the coil of filigree and let it touch the net. The beans hung like slender green trout, green eggs plump in their green bean bellies. So much green – too much – and so much for the natural order her father talked about; the hopelessness of beans left to fend for themselves, on their own.

After her mother’s death, realizing that as a female she was interchangeable and therefore he’d be trying to fill her up and kill her too, Odele developed a penchant for very long baths with bubbles. Her father wouldn’t have dared to yell at her while she was naked, but she had her blanket of bubbles just in case. The tub was behind the woodshed where her two brothers’ bottoms had been paddled until they were old enough to endure a leather strap across the open palms of their pre-pubescent hands. The strap was for the boys and the soap was for Odele, the only girl, and it was appropriate. The boys were always in some kind of trouble that involved their quick fingers and plump hands – taking money, raiding fruit trees or fighting on the dusty shoulder of the road home from school. The strap across the hands was fitting for the boys and likewise, it was Odele’s mouth that got her into trouble – sassing back to her father, expressing her opinions unasked. For Odele, it was the soap.

The only light that entered the shed came though its open door. Odele could practically hear the sound of woodbugs in the alder stacked ready for the stove in the kitchen or the bathtub out back. The strap hung from a nail on an exposed stud and next to it, the soap on the four inch ledge. Lye soap on a slippery rectangle of burlap. When Odele’s father opened the door, the equipment for punishment was illuminated by the wedge of light. The soap was in the shed to keep it out of the weather, ready for the ritual of Saturday night baths.

Their cast iron claw foot tub was raised up on bricks to make room for the fire beneath it. Late Saturday afternoon in the pantry, Odele’s father allowed the boys a taste of what he called democracy. He held out two pieces of straw plucked from the kitchen broom and the boy who drew the long straw would get to choose which task he’d do. Odele watched democracy in action on Saturdays; her father looked proud to be giving his sons a real education, but to Odele the gesture was confusing, since neither task was preferred by either boy. The boys would have slobbered over the opportunity to wield real power and lumber the other with some god forsaken task, but that didn’t seem to be the point of the demonstration of what their father called natural order of democracy.

The loser would be sent to chop kindling and light the fire or to pump water from the well and carry it to the bathtub pail by pail. An hour later, after supper, the bath regime began with Odele’s father climbing in first to soak for the better part of an hour, after which, when her mother was alive, she’d be next, but she tended to make it quick. After her – the boys, one at a time. Finally it was Odele’s turn. Frequently she had to chop more kindling to stoke the fire and wait until the water warmed up again. She pulled the sash of her pink chenille bathroom tight and swung the axe more accurately than either of her brothers, splitting wood like she was slicing bread for sandwiches. Truly alone, she sat on her thinking rock, poking the embers, vowing that one day she’d take baths twice as long as her father’s and soak in bubbles until the cows came home. When she had a child she’d spoil it. It could eat cake all day long for all she cared, Odele thought, shifting the wood with a twisted iron rod so familiar in her right hand that it was invisible to her. All week it hung beside the leather strap in the shed, next to the soap, until bath night when, individually they held it like a mediaeval weapon, jabbing it into the heart of the fire as heat flushed their faces and alone, they allowed themselves to imagine episodes of liberation – and even retribution – as they prepared to bathe their scrawny hillbilly bodies in murky water beside an unnamed stone on which sat the soap. Unnamed by everyone except Odele. It was her thinking rock, although she’d never said it out loud to anyone except herself. It was here that the term run through with an awl played over and over in her head and she blamed the rock for making her think it. This was what happened when she sat on the thinking rock. It made her think awful things about her father. She blamed the rock for putting things into her head and she thought it best to say them, to let them out, rather than save them, in her head, fearing that she might blurt out run through with an awl instead of please pass the potatoes at dinner.

Odele kept her small bottle of bubble bath in the pocket of her chenille robe. As she dribbled it across the dirty water she repeated her mantra, run through with an awl. Naked, one foot on her thinking rock, she used the soot-blackened poker to agitate the water, to make bubbles, and she laughed at how she must look, the real Odele, and she added to her chant – if all eyes were on me now.

The saving grace of her otherwise woefully lacking existence was that her father was not a man of god. Unlike her schoolmates traipsing off the church, Sundays were her own. Not to run through fields of buttercups, but to catch up on chores. Odele sometimes found herself glancing skyward while she squeezed dirty water out of a mop, thanking god that her father was not religious, thus cracking herself up enough that she twigged onto how humour worked – it split apart the dark tendrils tightening in her gut and around her heart, soothing her like a slug of moonshine, but laughter didn’t burn and make her cough. Odele tried to find external sources to make herself laugh, to reduce the internal grumbling in what she knew was not her soul – nor was she hungry, unless what she felt could be called a hunger to express herself. If she laughed or cried her father got angry. He was a man who was staunchly confused about most things, but in his role as head of the household, he felt compelled to have strong opinions. Anger was the only emotion he let his family see. He pontificated wildly, combining nuances of opposing stances, putting on a show. All bluster. Odele tried to follow his logic, but when she was nine she heard the word irrational uttered by her mother while they were going through the remnant bin at Hester’s Dry Good Store.

By the time she left the farm at sixteen Odele had eaten enough green beans to last her a lifetime. Emancipation from what she regarded as emotional tyranny came by way of the SMT Eastern bus line and her overwhelming determination to never again eat anything green.