One evening my sister arrives at the door, dripping, her red duffle coat a soggy maroon. A puddle spreads from her feet. She says a woman at the bus stop asked for her umbrella.
“And you just gave it to her?” I say.
“I don’t think it’s strange I gave it,” my sister says. “I think it’s strange that she asked.”
She blinks and water runs over her eyes and tangles in her eyelashes. She strokes her throat with two fingers and blinks hard, trying to find her way to her own logic, peculiar and fuzzy though it is. Behind her, rain sweeps up the street in a wide, whooshing arc and an insistent tapping starts in the drain.
“Come in,” I say, stepping back. “Just come inside.”
In the kitchen Louise steps out of her clothes and stands in her underwear, rearranging the Shakespearean word magnets on my fridge. Her back is round, pale, spotted with moles, and she’s bent all forward and down from the round bone at the top of her spine. The whole room smells like her: caramel but with salty hints of the beach at low tide. I carry her clothes to the dryer and they drip and soak patches into my shirt. Loathsome fool goblet me up, Louise moves the magnets to say, and some words fall on the floor and under the fridge. I wrap her in Malcolm’s old bathrobe and turn her to the armchair, where she picks up a pillow and runs her finger over the embroidery.
The bucket of hot water I bring her is too small for her feet. “No, it’s all right,” Louise says, holding my wrist as I reach to take it away. She wedges her feet in, curled and sideways. “They fit. It feels nice.”
The man in the condo next door starts vacuuming. Louise points at the wall and I nod. Then, she looks at her lap.
“Can I stay here, Evvie?” she says, then. “Just tonight.”
Tomorrow night I have to chaperone the Global Society’s twenty-four-hour famine, which means staying awake all night in the gym watching documentaries about the World Bank and the Three Gorges Dam. I need my rest. If Louise stays, the night will be long and unquiet. She talks in her sleep, wakes up well before dawn, and will need a ride wherever she is going.
Louise would leave if I said so. She already expects it and is looking out the window as a streetlamp flicks on and the orange cone of light is filled with streaming rain. But my sister is elderly and missing something no one has ever been able to identify. Her clothes are still in the dryer and she gave away her umbrella. It is a long bus ride east to her apartment, and a long ride back this way for work in the morning.
“All right, Louise,” I say. “Just tonight.”
“Thank you, Evvie,” Louise says. “Do you want the bathrobe back now?” She puts her fingers on the cord at her waist. I shake my head.
I tell Louise about a news report that says that people who have sisters are happier. She asks why and I say, “Why do you think?” She says maybe it’s because they can share clothes. We have never shared clothes. She is tall and wide and I can still shop in the children’s section. She wears flowered blouses, red high heels. I tell her that no, the researchers believe it is because girls talk about feelings and as soon as I say it, I know that she will tell me about someone who has been unkind to her this week. She will want consolation, I will be angry, and neither of us will be any happier.
“This water is cold now,” Louise says, instead, lifting one pink foot.
“So soon?” I say. “It can’t be.”
But it is. Water splashes onto my hands as I pour it into the kitchen sink, water cold as a mountain lake, colder than the rain, as if my sister had drained the warmth, drawn it up into herself to slake some thirsty chill.
“Evvie,” Louise calls. “Do you have anything to eat?”
I lean on the counter. “What would you like?” I say.
“Do you have grilled cheese?” she says.
I say that grilled cheese isn’t something a person has, it is something a person must make. Louise says nothing so I take out the frying pan. Grilled cheese. I never make it for myself but I’m expert in turning the bread a golden, buttery brown.
“Are you not having any?” she says, when I bring her the sandwich. She eats half and rubs her fingertips together so the crumbs drop on the plate. “Do you feel sick?”
Today I saw Malcolm in London Drugs with Cheryl, who was wearing a black leather jacket and a big scarf and they were picking out an espresso maker even though for the thirty years Malcolm lived with me he only ever drank Tetley tea, always leaving that dried-out little pouch in its rusty stain on the sink corner. And tomorrow night is the students’ twenty-four-hour famine. What unreasonable part of myself can I blame for agreeing to a whole sleepless night in that dulling warmth of young hopefulness? I don’t want to think about the Three Gorges Dam. When I do, I see this: a young woman in her one-room house in the dark underwater, running short of air, swimming wildly, gathering what she can save, her hair spreading and then streaming flat behind her as she kicks her legs and dives down into the shadows for a family photo already ruined. Why do you want to know about all these poor people? I want to ask my students. You can’t help them. Believe me. Try to spend your whole life helping even just one person and you will see what I mean.
“No,” I say to Louise. “I am fine. Nice of you to ask.”
Louise works in a second-hand clothing store that specializes in retraining “difficult to place” women. The phrase—difficult to place—reminds me of when you recognize a person but can’t remember why, a dreamlike feeling that all your experiences are tangled, half-real, out of order. Do I know you from somewhere? The store feels filled with half-familiar women coming and going, women who may have been unkind to Louise, who may have been in jail, who may be back again after being fired from another job. When I go to drop off my old clothes, I say hello to everyone but don’t know how much enthusiasm to use.
My sister calls it her new job, though she has been there seven years. A woman at the store told Louise that she had hockey hair and a lisp.
“Tell her—‘I don’t appreciate being spoken to like that,’” I said.
“Okay,” Louise said. She picks at her nail polish and breathes through her mouth. Then she lets her big hands fall together in her lap.
“She’ll be gone soon, anyway,” I say.
Part of me knows the sting in this—another woman moves on, Louise stays behind—but the words have their own momentum.
“She might get a job doing gardening with the city,” Louise agrees. “She has an interview.”
Sometimes I want to take my sister’s face between my hands and tell her to snap out of it. For Christ’s sake, Louise. Use your head. Just look through the help wanted ads. Call the repairman if the bathroom fan is broken or at least wipe the mould off the walls. Always put your bus pass in the wallet, and the wallet in the same place. You can’t have only Cadbury cream eggs for supper.
Malcolm used to tell me to cut Louise some slack.
“She’s a nice person,” he’d say. “And anyway, those are her mistakes to make.”
“Easy for you to say,” I’d say. “She’s not your sister. You don’t have to worry about her every day of every week.”
On the way to work in the morning, Louise sits passenger side, her purse in her lap. She flips down the visor, cleans sleep from her eyes, then points at the radio where the weather’s being reported and says, “More rain.”
“Mm,” I say, changing lanes.
“They’re blowing up Woodward’s,” she says, a moment later.
“I heard that,” I say.
“It’s on Thursday,” she says.
“Yes,” I say. “I know. Tomorrow.”
“I can’t watch,” she says.
“You have to work,” I say. “No more missed shifts, Louise.”
“I know,” she says. “That’s what I just said, Evvie. I can’t watch. I don’t want to watch.”
I pull into the curb and Louise climbs out. She tries the store’s front door but it’s locked. She comes back to the passenger side window and says it’s okay, she just has to wait for Justine. I say I can’t wait with her and she says, “I know, you should go.” In the side mirror I see her standing there, so tall in high heels, with her arms folded across her chest, purse at her elbow, the Closed sign in the door behind. The window display is crowded, unmatched, with bald mannequins wearing floppy hats. At the first stoplight, it begins to rain. I sigh, turn on my indicator, and drive around the block, but when I arrive back at the front of the store, the lights are on and Louise has gone inside.
As I pull into my parking spot at school, I imagine customers who walk in as Louise is sorting through garbage bags of clothing donations or re-folding the jeans. She will admire all the ways they have embellished themselves. “Ooh,” she might say. “I love your belt.” Your shoes. Your hat. Your watch. Your old-fashioned eyes. Most people probably say thank you and tell her a story, which is what she wants—where they got their hair clip, how people always said they looked like their grandmother
Last month Louise saw a career counsellor who said, “What is your dream job?” My sister said she’d always wanted to design costumes for Broadway musicals. The counsellor gave her a phone number and I called the Vancouver Film School for a brochure.
Louise sat next to me, talking the whole time.
“How much is it?” she said.
“Can you hang on a minute?” I said to the woman on the phone.
“Ask how much it is,” my sister said.
“How much is it?” I said.
It was twenty thousand dollars a year.
“I thought it might be something like that,” my sister said, looking down at her hands. I hung up.
“They’re going to send more information,” I said.
“I’m too old, anyway,” she said.
The employment counsellor asked what skills my sister had and she said selling shoes. The counsellor said, “Let’s break that down a little.” He asked if my sister used the cash register and my sister said no. She used to be able to, she explained. Using the old system. She had learned it very slowly, carefully. She didn’t want to make a mistake in case the totals were off and she was accused of stealing. Then the department brought in the new machine where people could pay with their bank cards, and my sister was demoted back to the floor.
“Customer service,” was what the counsellor wrote in the end.
“As a summary of your skills,” I said. “That is totally insufficient.”
“What?” Louise said.
My sister knows when to say, “You can always wear them around the house for a few days and then bring them back.” Or, “I think those look really pretty on you. But are they comfortable?” She connected two lawyers with one foot larger than the other—for one it was the left and the other it was the right—and the women became friends and bought their shoes together, in sizes seven and nine. Mostly, Louise loved making displays, especially at Christmas, laying out white lights under cotton batting, making shoe-sleds for little wooden elves, positioning the two tall nutcrackers at the edge of the department where the shiny rubber met the carpet. Her favourite day back at Woodward’s was December first, when she could retrieve the ornaments from the storeroom and sort them at lunch. I still picture her there, on a fold-out chair among shoeboxes, untangling tinsels, unwrapping those small human figures with painted-on clothes.
In the gymnasium that night I am arbiter of a small disagreement when it is discovered that one student has lemon juice in her water. “My mom said I had to,” she explains, but the other students accuse her of cheating and say she will have to forfeit her pledges.
“Do you think people in Africa have lemon in their water?” says the Global Society president.
“Let’s think about this rationally,” I say. I say that tap water is already sort of processed, so in a sense none of the students is drinking it plain. I suggest that for the last nine hours, the girl should drink water without lemon and eventually the others allow her to continue.
At three a.m., after the movies finish, the students push their sleeping mats together in a circle and lie with their heads in each others’ laps, talking in low voices and laughing. I sit in a wood chair near the bleachers. I’ve given up trying to see which body parts are whose—they’re all wearing grey sweatpants, their legs overlap. When Monica Grayson comes back to relieve me, I tell her it is okay. I’m not even tired.
“You go back and sleep,” I say.
“Are you sure?” she says.
The truth is I feel close to something important. After Monica leaves, the students’ whispers feel far away, along with the humming pipes in the school walls. I feel the shape of the room around me and everything’s gone soft and dark. My mind is a tilting black mirror, everything is dimly refracted and I can see Malcolm, Louise, and even my mother as they’re asking, asking, asking, then sliding back. What’s left is just the mirror, and I can see that no, it’s liquid, like deep black oil, and my heartbeat sends ripples across its shiny surface.
“Mrs. Landis?” says a student.
I pull myself upright.
“Ashley,” I say. How long has she been standing there?
“Can we have the key for the basketball hoop?” she says.
“Basketball?” I say. “Isn’t it a bit late?”
“It’s early,” she says. “Almost six.”
“It’s all right,” I say, standing up. “I’ll do it.”
I turn the key in its slot and watch the hoop lower almost ceremonially from the ceiling. The students are already shouting and trying to steal the ball from each other. I open the gym’s side door and see a widening band of grey over the rooftops. The air is damp and cool.
“Here,” says the counsellor, beside me. “I brought you a coffee. You take milk, right?”
“I do,” I say. “Thank you.”
“You should go home and have a rest.”
“Yes. Thank you. I think I will.”
Instead, I drive downtown and around and around, upward, in a parkade until I find a place. From the window the angle is too sharp to see the Woodward’s building—I can see only a dirty white apartment block with a hairdressing studio on ground level and the old men at picnic tables on the brick patio of the Cambie pub.
I see my sister.
She is walking with two other women and saying something over one shoulder. I shout but she doesn’t look up and when I step out of the elevator at street level, she is gone and men in fluorescent vests are putting up barricades. I appreciate, briefly, a feeling of paranormal calm, standing in the middle of an intersection as the lights turn yellow, red, and then green again. A siren sounds and repeats. I look up at that huge store, now standing stripped and gaping with hanging wires and silver accordion tubes. My sister worked on that third floor, there, but all the furnishing and footsteps are ghosts now. I remember: picking her up from work after a busy day, I’d find her still checking sizes and putting the shoes back in the box, repackaging insoles, or using the roller vacuum. “What a day,” she’d say, though even then she probably felt those three words a luxury.
A man steps in front of me and holds up his digital camera so I watch the first explosions on its bright little screen, dynamite snapping like firecrackers. I feel each blast through the soles of my shoes and the front of my body. There is a ringing silence. The building sways. The next blasts are sonorous booms and the structure falls straight down, fast, collapsing in on itself. Soon, the dust comes rolling out toward us in waves, a huge beige cloudbank unfolding itself over downtown until we are surrounded by a thick fog and I can taste the old department store, chalky on my teeth and tongue.
“Watching history happen,” says the man with the camera, now watching the footage. “You want to see?”
“No thank you,” I say, before I realize he is talking to his wife, who is standing beside me. I turn away without saying anything else. I walk a grid pattern through downtown, looking down alleyways and into stores and coffee shops. Then, I nearly run to the car. At home I run across the carpets in my shoes and call Louise but there is no answer. I call the store. Justine says she gave Louise the day off.
“She was just being too emotional,” Justine says.
I drive back downtown to look for her. The barricades are still up and the department building lies in slumped bricks with a few rough spires of concrete. The dust has settled and there is nothing to do except go back home and wait. I keep calling until after seven when I finally reach her. She says she is fine. She says when the building collapsed, she just thought, “The end.” Like the last page of a storybook. She was more nervous before the explosion happened and when it finally did, she felt fine.
“I was so worried about you, Louise,” I say.
“So what else is new?” she says.
“I…” I say. Then, we are both quiet for a long time. Outside there are crows and a siren. Louise is still quiet. I can picture her beside the phone in her small kitchen, perhaps twisting the cord around her fingers. When I was last at her house I saw she’d been practicing signatures on the notepad there beside the phone.
“Are you angry, Evvie?” Louise says, finally.
“No,” I say, and am relieved to find that it’s true.
“Where did you go today? Where were you standing when it fell?”
One of Louise’s old friends from the store knew a staircase in a building nearby. They stood on a roof and watched the demolition from above. There was all this moss—it was like standing on a field.
“There were people everywhere up there,” Louise said. “On all the roofs.”
She tells me about a flock of white birds that was flying loops over the building before it fell, as if they sensed something was about to happen and they didn’t know where to land. Around, down, up, around. And as she says it, I can remember that I saw those birds, too, swooping from above. From where I stood, they looked like falling confetti.