“Oh, geez, well. Shit.”
Through a gap in the brocade curtain, Louise sees her, standing there like the Avon lady. Except that she has no case of perfumes; her case, vinyl and red and gripped awkwardly under her left arm as she jabs with her right finger at the doorbell, is full of what Louise knows at glance to be dirty clothes and makeup in a brown shopping bag. Something rises in Louise’s throat—bile, nausea, panic—but there’s nothing for it. Mrs. Woodward is sleeping and it’s definitely her job to answer the door right now.
“Who is it, Lweez?” asks Sally, who has sauntered in from the kitchen and is tugging at Louise’s skirt with a hand that also holds two crayons and a half-eaten slice of bologna.
“Let’s just find out together.”
Louise pronounces this in the bright tone she uses when it’s time to clean up the playroom. The words shine like the foil tinsel on the miniature artificial Christmas tree Mrs. Woodward has purchased for the front hall table. Keeping Sally behind her with a firm hand, Louise opens the heavy door. She has words on her lips, but Francine beats her to the punch.
“I’m done with him. I’ve brought Jane. We’re gonna’ stay here for a while.” Francine is breathless and looks proud. Her chin juts out; her ruby lips smile over crooked bottom teeth that skew her grin leftward, despite years of mirror-training to coax it to the right. “Where’s your place? I know I can’t bug you here, but I had to find your address. You didn’t return my calls.”
This marched-out list of questions and accusations is a Francine special, a tack holding Louise to the wall like an out-of-date calendar.
“I…I’ve been really busy. I’m never home.” Louise pauses, awkwardly, then adds, with more conviction, “It’s not okay to ring here while I’m working. You’ll have to…”
Louise actually has no idea what to suggest. “Can I, uh, can I call you when I’m done work?”
Francine hesitates, clearly surprised. Her pencilled eyebrows rise on her face, upside-down smiles. “Where’re we gonna’ go in the meantime? We took the bus and then walked and then the streetcar. It was a long way, ya’ know. Jane’s tired.”
“Where is she? Where’s Jane?”
“I left her in a coffee shop over where the streetcar stops—what is it, Roncy-vale?”
Beautiful valley in Spanish, Mr. Woodward had said. A beautiful valley full of some people who had fought off an invader whose name sounded like “champagne.” Louise thinks briefly of how she felt when she first heard this information—small, stupid, a bit slow; she can’t help what comes next—a superior attitude to Francine, standing there in the cold with her stupid red case.
“You can’t leave a little kid alone like that. Go get her. You have to go get her.”
Louise shrugs her cardigan around her front, crossing its edges one over the other, shutting this thing out that Francine has brought. She fumbles around in the pocket of her skirt, finding the bills she’d placed there this morning when Mrs. Woodward paid her.
She shoves the money at Francine, who reaches to take it as she looks at Louise, unsure, her brown eyes unblinking and innocent in the mascara frame Louise won’t look at.
“Take it.” And then she adds, only because she can’t think of anything else to say, “I’ll meet you at the coffee shop, Kowalski’s, the one at Geoffrey and Roncesvalles, in two hours.” Louise doesn’t wait to hear Francine’s response. She shuts the door carefully, patting it efficiently once it’s shut, and turns to Sally, who is chewing the bologna, distracted yet aware that something is happening.
“Who’s that, Lweez?”
“Nobody. She was selling those Avon things. We don’t need those if we’re already bee-oo-ti-ful, right?”
The tinsel brightness is harder now because her throat is so, so tight, but Louise’s way of pronouncing “beautiful” puts Sally at ease. She loovvvves to be bee-oo-ti-ful.
There’s a lot to do this afternoon—it’s the week before Christmas and Mrs. Woodward is a blur of fur coat and heels most afternoons, as she whisks off in her Oldsmobile to lunches, charity events, and shopping parties with her friends. But today she’s in bed. The thing that sent her to bed is familiar enough to Louise, but it’s different, too; it has an air of overextended glamour, of pearl necklace, of pillbox hat. It knows when to go to bed and it knows not to get into screaming fights. It is discreet (the word is Mrs. Woodward’s own, high praise for things worn or used to decorate the house). Later, it will drink ice water and Alka Seltzer.
Mr. Woodward will be home at 5:30, early because it’s Friday and he promised the kids this morning, and even if Mrs. Woodward hasn’t come out of her room yet, Louise is pretty sure she’ll be able to leave then. She’s half-committed to the idea of Kowalski’s—of course she’ll go because Jane is there––how could she not?––but, also, she definitely might not go. She clicks on the television in the family room. Albert J. Steed is on. Good thing because Teddy loves Uncle Bill and those puppets.
“Teddy,” she calls up the stairs, her voice still tight and high, like an unpractised soprano’s, “come and watch Uncle Bill with Sally while I tidy up and get supper on.”
It takes a moment, but Teddy appears, grinning, his left cheek covered in blue ink (Louise sees this; she’ll have to do something about it). He pops down the stairs, more lively than usual, a tiny, inky planet drawn to the television’s powerful orbit. Louise is walking down the hall to the kitchen and can hear them wrangling over the last of the damp bologna in Sally’s fist, but she ignores them, calmed by her own deliberate steps that take her to the kitchen, its cream-coloured Frigidaire, and its new green linoleum, which clicks under the heels of her sensible shoes in an affirming way. She is here; this place is part of her now. Francine at the door with her eyebrows and her red case is not part of this place.
The night sky out the kitchen window is cocktail-dress black and Louise feels the panic rising in her throat. The kids, in the middle of peas and pork cutlets and milk at the kitchen table, have a Christmas-season banter that excludes her completely, plans for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning and for the sled that will surely come—“you bet, I saw a big package in Daddy’s car last Saturday,” Teddy, still slightly blue-cheeked, assures. Sally isn’t sure, and won’t eat, pushes her peas around her plate, certain of a sledless winter.
When the front door finally opens it’s well past 6:30. Even if she had intended to go to Kowalski’s, it’s too late now; he shuts at 6.
“Ho, ho, ho!” Mr. Woodward is in a very good mood, his arms as he enters the kitchen filled with packages. He tips two of the smallest, paper-wrapped ones onto the formica of the counter and prances out, still in his overshoes and slopping wet all over the blue wool carpet in the hall. “Those are treats for the party!” he yells as he recedes down the hall to his office. He calls something else but Louise doesn’t catch it. Jane turned six this fall, just like Sally. She’s dark, like Louise, but Sally is blonde. Sally is still pushing peas but has perked up considerably because of Daddy’s good mood. A sled seems likely.
Mr. Woodward, now out of his coat, suit jacket, and overshoes and with his tie loosened, comes back into the kitchen.
“You should go now, Louise.”
He gives her a wink, his way of saying thanks and sorry that I’m late, I really didn’t mean to be but I was buying nice things and got carried away. He begins fixing himself a rye and soda and Louise wonders if he’ll ask about Mrs. Woodward. She prefers not to explain this, though she has the words all practised, so she kisses the kids on their heads, smelling them a bit as she does, her eyes turned down (she likes how they smell but is performing a bit for Mr. Woodward—she knows she’s pretty when she’s maternal).
“I’ll be here early tomorrow because of the party.”
Her voice is not right and she is conscious, as she always is in front of Mr. Woodward, that her bottom teeth are crooked, that her cardigan sweater is cheap and therefore pilled all over the front, just where her breasts stick out most prominently. Her breasts seem very large.
“So, um, maybe 9 instead of 10?”
“Indeed, Louise. À demain.”
Mr. Woodward lights a cigarette and winks again from behind his cupped hand, his long form slouched so easily against the counter, his white shirt so very white.
Louise is always on time, so she arrives the next morning, as she said she would, at exactly 9 o’clock. She puts her coat on a wooden hanger in the front closet— its grey acrylic so shapeless against the silky folds of Mrs. Woodward’s fox.
“It’s so kind, Mr. Woodsworth, we really don’t need to eat a thing. Janey and me are just fine.”
Francine’s voice is so familiar to Louise that it almost seems to come from inside of her, rather than from the end of the hall where the kitchen is located. It’s grateful, this voice, and surely it’s hungry, too, but Louise picks up other things–needling, calculating, arranging. Louise can hear Mr. Woodward responding. He sounds jovial enough, but she’s sure he’s wondering what the hell is going on. Louise had said her family was in Saskatchewan, where in fact she wishes they were. Maynooth is too close to Toronto, Louise sees this now; she should have gone east and not sent an employer’s address. She’s almost in the kitchen when she hears Jane,
“Yes I would please sir, yes please.”
As she enters the kitchen and its creamy glow, made all the more glowy by the snow-covered trees outside the kitchen window, she sees Jane, her dark hair strange at the cream-coloured table normally circled by blonde heads. Jane looks up from a plate of toast and jam, her brown eyes clearly startled by Louise.
“Well, now, Louise, you didn’t tell us your family was so close to Toronto. We didn’t know you were expecting them for Christmas!”
Mrs. Woodward has come up from behind Louise in a way she has that is terrifying. Her hands are on Louise’s shoulders and there is a kind of chumminess in it all, as if now they can celebrate like one big family and wasn’t that in fact what they had all wanted all along?
“Your mother told us about her trip down here and we’re just working out whether or not she can help you with the parties this week and next. We hear she’s a wonderful cook. I was thinking she could give Phyllis a hand. God knows she needs one, and you’ll be busy with the kids.”
“Yes, well, um, yes.”
Louise clears her throat for confidence and won’t look at Francine. She’s mortified beyond all imaginable mortification that Francine would show up here, with hungry Janey who is consuming peach jam on toast in folded-over double bites. She looks instead at Francine’s stockinged feet, in pantyhose with dark brown reinforced toes; she looks at her legs, which, strangely, are not crossed but demurely joined at the ankles.
“I’m very grateful, Mr. and Mrs. Woodsworth. Me and Janey won’t stay in town long, but what you’re suggesting could work out real nice if it’s okay with Louise.”
It’s a question for Louise but she won’t answer it, not in a million years. Francine knows the answer and also knows that Louise can’t answer as she’d like to.
“Well, I know Phyllis needs the help and this way, you two can have a chance to spend some time together while Louise is working.”
Mrs. Woodward imagines they have missed one another, mother and daughter, not because she can imagine missing an adult Sally but because this is the form, this is what grown daughters and their mothers do even if they are poor and from outside the city and God knows what else—they miss one another and then reunite with girlish happiness. The thought that she is doing a good turn for Louise’s family in the Christmas season flushes her with pleasure, and she asks if Francine would like another cup of coffee or Jane another slice of toast.
Mr. Woodward has now silently excused himself from this women’s coven in the kitchen; he’s in his customary Saturday pose in the adjoining dining room with his paper and his own coffee. Sally and Teddy must be sleeping because the house, except for the polite and controlled conversation in the kitchen, is silent. Louise moves herself so that her back is facing the kitchen table and she is in the reassuring, window-facing pathway from stove to sink. She opens a drawer and puts on the Christmas apron with poinsettias and green dots. As she ties the apron, she feels her hands shake. Janey’s chew-smacking is god-awful.
“Ya’ know, Mrs. Woodsward, we’re gonna’ get on our way. I wanna’ let Louise get to work here and you and your family have your day to get started.”
Francine pauses, waiting a few moments to let Louise interject, to gather herself so that she can turn around and perform the daughter who has been reunited with her family by her thoughtful employer.
“I wanna’ take Janey to do some Christmas shopping.”
She pauses again, clearly trying to decide how to make Louise turn around so the exit will not be so awkward. Jane knows better than to speak to Louise but, as the clatter of a knife on the table tells Louise, she is in any case busy trying to dispatch the last slice of toast before she’s made to leave.
“Well, Francine,” Louise can feel Mrs. Woodward looking at her back as she rises to see her guests out, “it was a pleasure to meet you and I’m happy that we can help you all be together during the holidays.”
Louise can’t stand it and turns slightly so that she can meet Mrs. Woodward’s blue eyes. Thank you, she says with her own glistening brown eyes, her tears so easily speaking the message of gratefulness that is part of Mrs. Woodward’s script.
“Would you like to see the ladies out, Louise, while I check in on the kids? Still not awake and it’s past nine! We’ve got a birthday party at 11!”
She’s rattling on now, ushering them all out of the kitchen and into the hall, managing the situation with a grace and control that comforts Louise even as it irritates her.
“Bye, my dears. Oh, the first party is tonight, Francine, but maybe that’s too soon?” Mrs. Woodward is already well down the hall and is clearly not waiting for a response. “It might be a good idea to come at 4 to help Phyllis do the canapés. She hates those fiddly things.”
“Why do you have to be such a bitch?” Francine hisses through her red lips.
She takes Jane’s hand in her own, forming a wall against Louise. Mr. Woodward is still in the dining room and Louise doesn’t want him to hear any of this, especially the sibilant spitting that says more than the words.
“Let’s go to the door. C’mon, Janey.”
Louise takes Jane’s other hand, sticky with jam but eager to be held, and the two women march the girl down the carpeted hall to the glass-paned door that shuts the lobby off from the rest of the main floor. Louise clicks the door behind them, knowing they can at least whisper here without being heard.
“Ya’ have to tell us where ya’ live, Louise. We have nowhere to go. I’m comin’ back tonight but I need somewhere to put our stuff today. We stayed at the Y last night, Louise, two in a single bed because they’re full up.”
Images march through Louise’s head: nights with the stove stuffed to the brim with wood, roaring a horrible fire, Janey in her bed in the little room off the kitchen and Louise moving furniture to bar both front and back doors to keep her parents from entering after their party, to keep them from screaming and throwing things, to keep their drunkenness out; an icebox with nothing in it but a damp pile of raw ground beef on school mornings; the pond behind the house, frozen and calm. Just beyond the pond in her mind is her apartment, her room on Humberside Avenue.
“Just come at 4 this afternoon. You can come, too, Jane. We’ll work it out after that.”
The party that evening goes well enough—Francine shows on time, Janey in tow, and sets to work with unusual alacrity, following Phyllis’s barked orders with a meek attitude that makes Phyllis offer some fine compliments to Louise about her mother. Phyllis has been in Toronto for three winters; she says she’s one of the first women from Barbados to come and that things aren’t easy for a brown woman in a white city. She and Francine share some things, Louise can see this right away: they both wear Avon’s Roses, Roses perfume, for example. But other things are different: Phyllis is a devout Christian (“Anglikaan, girl”), and Francine has never actually seen a black person before Phyllis. Francine’s mouth drops open in an “O” when she first lays eyes on Phyllis in the kitchen.
Francine drops a tray of salmon canapés, but she’s nervous, Phyllis says, it’s not her fault and it’s easily cleaned up. Louise spends the evening with the kids, concocting lines for herself while they use her eyebrow tweezers to dissect the innards of an old stuffed dog. (“It was a bad bone he ate,” Sally pronounces, holding up the offending fluff, and Jane is too shy to contradict.) Louise’s favourite is the one that has her telling Francine to just fuck off, she has her own life here and Francine can’t screw it up; Francine can bloody well go back to Maynooth, back to the hole she came from; Louise doesn’t need her messed-up life, its smell of rye and soda, its cheap nylon pants, its black eyes on Sunday mornings, its too-loud voice, its ignorance of things like coffee after dinner, CBC radio, and the great battles of history, like the one fought by the defenders of Roncesvalles. At the end of the night, once Teddy and Sally are in bed, she settles for offering to take Janey home and giving Francine money for a week at the Y.
According to Mrs. Woodward, the Woodwards have hosted a Christmas Eve party for their friends and neighbours since “time immemorial.” For tonight’s party, Phyllis has concocted a rum punch that she’s now famous for, despite the fact that the punch has only graced two Christmas Eve gatherings; this makes Phyllis cocky, so she’s strutting around the kitchen in her sturdy white shoes, talking herself through a recipe for a second libation, “maw-bee.” She’s rifling through the spice drawer, shouting at Louise to please tell her where she put the cinnamon after she made the eggnog earlier in the day, when a crash in the front hall makes Louise jump. She immediately scolds herself for letting the steamy kitchen and Phyllis’s good humour and the smooth voice of Austin Willis on the radio lull her away from her general state of watchfulness.
“It’s fiiine, everyone,” Francine calls in a high voice as she opens the glass door from the lobby, “just me and Janey, here for the part-eeee.”
This last part is clearly falsetto and Louise knows in an instant that Francine is pickled. As she enters the kitchen with her red face and her too-tight dress, she drawls a “Merrrry Christmaas!” that sends an electric shiver of hatred down Louise’s spine. She hates Christmas. She fucking hates Francine.
Janey enters the kitchen slowly, still wearing her too-big felt coat and looking wide-eyed at Louise. Louise forgets the search for cinnamon, takes Jane’s hand, and leads her down the hall to the family room where Sally and Teddy are drinking chocolate milk and watching The Andy Griffith Show. Sally is cutting an intricate paper snowflake, making an incredible mess on the blue rug; she looks up when Jane comes in and moves over for her, welcoming her in the way that children sometimes do, accepting that she is one of her own and must be accommodated. There’s another crashing noise from the kitchen and Louise trots down the hall in her flat shoes, hoping that Mr. and Mrs. Woodward are too busy upstairs to have noticed the noise on the main floor. Entering the kitchen, she sees the shards of glass and the liquid first—dark brown and viscous—seeping across the green linoleum. The smell is pungent: root beer and something astringent, like Dettol. Looking up, she sees Francine, leaning over the counter and laughing, a run up the back of her tan pantyhose. Phyllis is already mopping, cursing Francine who has somehow managed in five minutes to push the entire punch bowl onto the floor. Phyllis’s voice is low, a growl—none of them wants a scene with the Woodwards in the hour before thirty guests are set to arrive.
“Alright, I’m sorry—whew!” Francine stands straight, smooths her sprayed hair with two red-nailed hands, and hitches up the pantyhose under the fitted skirt of her dress. “Phyllis, really, I’m sorry. I’ll do that. I had a few nice Christmas drinks and got carried away. I’m ok. I’m really ok.”
She takes the mop from Phyllis and sets to work, avoiding Louise’s eyes.
“I met a guy, Lweez, he drives the streetcar that comes down Roncey-vale. He took me and Janey out for some eats at the tavern near Bloor St. Janey ate like a pig. I was tryin’ to be polite, only drinkin’, but I got carried away!”
Louise busies herself with a tower of cream cheese and cherry sandwiches, jabbing parsley sprigs in it to make it look like a Christmas tree. She doesn’t have to stay much longer in the kitchen; she can give the kids dinner, play some Scrabble with them, and put them to bed while the party is roaring. Phyllis will run the kitchen and Francine will serve, her breasts and hips rolled into a long, white apron that tries hard to give her the air of a nurse.
Though Louise spends the evening braced for the worst—another crash, a falsetto shriek––these do not materialize. She’s alert and tense when she finally descends the stairs as the party is winding down. The kids are well in bed; as Mrs. Woodward has asked, Louise has spent most of the evening wrapping presents in Mr. Woodward’s office. There are two bright red sleds with gold bows leaned against his desk, ready for her to play Santa once the Woodwards are in bed. There is also a doll house and a doll with real silk hair, a new Meccano set, some new clothes, a board game for Sally and Teddy to share (Monopoly), and a new book for each of them (Little Women and Treasure Island).
Mrs. Woodward is at the foot of the stair, laughing and passing coats from the hall bench to her guests, who are filing out the glass door and into the lobby to retrieve their overshoes. The lobby is a wet mess and ladies are trying to avoid stepping into frigid puddles as they exchange kitten heels for zippered booties. Louise begins sifting through the coats, trying to match them to their owners, who are chatting and laughing and drinking and smoking even as they leave the house.
“Lou-iiiise!” Mrs. Woodward places a warm, bare arm across her back. “Where did you get to? I wanted you to meet Mrs. Wakeham, Dr. Wakeham’s wife. Here she is! Denise, why did I want you to meet Louise? Now I can’t recall!”
The two women explode with ringing, high-pitched laughter and Mrs. Wakeham deposits her empty martini glass in Louise’s hand.
“Because she’ll take my glass! I can’t very well take it home!”
They laugh some more, Mrs. Wakeham finishing her giggles by running a manicured finger across her upper lip, as if to seal something up.
The rowdy departing crowd persists for another ten minutes or so. Louise doles out coats. A colleague of Mr. Woodward’s, Mr. Gillies, lingers at the door, smoking a big cigar and it seems like he’ll never leave but eventually he does, and the house is empty. The children asleep upstairs, Jane on the office floor on a cream wool car blanket, and downstairs, Mr. and Mrs. Woodward and Francine, Phyllis having left at ten because, as she made clear earlier in the day, that’s the deal on Christmas Eve. For Phyllis, Christmas means church, and Jesus. This is interesting to Louise, whose only experience of a church is a dim memory of her cousin Sue’s baptism and a cake with pink icing roses and a white hat with a veil that her Aunt Debbie wore at a weird angle, kind of dangling from her head. Louise knows Francine’s in the kitchen; she can hear her banging around. She’s not at all sure what state things are in and she just wants to get her out of here.
“Could I have a wee word before I go off to bed-sy, Louise. Do you mind?”
Mrs. Woodward has a tendency to make these little cute words when she’s had some drinks, Louise notices.
“Not at all, Mrs. Woodward. I managed to get all the wrapping done, and I’ll do up the tree before I head home tonight.”
Mrs. Woodward smiles, tucking her discretely frosted hair behind her ear with a hand that wears one ring only despite the dress-up nature of the occasion—one, not three.
“Thanks, dear, and do call me Marion, will you? It’s been almost six months since you came to us; we can talk like friends, hmm?”
Marion’s arm is heavy on Louise’s shoulders; she’s clearly leaning on her, using her like a walking stick as they veer toward the foot of the stairs. Marion leans in further, her lips almost brushing Louise’s cheek. Louise smells the layers of her perfume—rich fruit, gold dust, pearls.
“I just want to say, we had to send your mother home. Phyllis is in a real snit, staying on Christmas Eve.” Marion’s voice goes even lower, to a stage whisper. “Francine drinks, Louise. You probably know.”
Marion gives Louise’s shoulder a squeeze before detaching, substituting Louise’s support for that of the bannister. She weaves up the stairs in her patent heels; on the fifth step, her heel buckles and she goes over on her ankle. She reaches down without turning around, removes both shoes, and continues up the stairs, her back straight as an arrow in its navy silk sheath dress.
Louise has managed to wrap Jane in the wool blanket and to get out the door without rousing her, but she’s sure she’ll wake up when the cold night air hits her face. She doesn’t; she snores softly on Louise’s shoulder, but Louise’s arms are already killing her and she’s not even down the Woodwards’ flagstone walkway. She hitches Janey and the blanket up a bit and concentrates on her footing. She’s missed the last streetcar and she’ll have to walk now, up Roncesvalles to Dundas West and over to her room on Humberside. She doesn’t have boots but her flat shoes are good ones, given to her by Mrs. Woodward. She thinks of Francine for a moment, where she might be, what she might be doing. These thoughts bring others, of cheap clothes, of sticky sweets, of the dirty magazines her father stashes in the outhouse—feelings she wants to rinse out in the hot bleach bath she uses for the Woodwards’ white dinner napkins. She thinks of her room on Humberside, its neat yellow quilt and its potted African violet (also given by Mrs. Woodward), and she thinks of roaring, overstuffed woodstoves, empty iceboxes, and cold ash overflowing in cereal bowls. She tastes that ash in her throat, a memory of the time she didn’t rinse a bowl carefully enough and ended up with a slump of grey mud at the bottom of her Rice Krispies. She imagines that she and Janey, bundled together and trudging up the street with its crisp snow underfoot and its twinkling lights, are one giant white winter bird, poised for flight, ready to soar over the beautiful valley, on their way home.