Issue 50: 2023 fiction contest winner
by Josh Goudie
by Josh Goudie
Using a half-inch cutter, punch a hole through the centre of half the cookies. I sweep a hand over the well-floured sheet of molasses dough, evoking memories of the time I stood out on the street brushing fallen ash from my mother’s plump cheeks. Outside, a snowplough careens too fast down Gower, burying the salt-rusted cars behind clean white walls and making the countertop vibrate beneath my fingers. I return to my mother’s notebook, reading her handwritten recipe from the beginning, and from the beginning two more times after that. I remind myself to concentrate – to focus on each word – but when I finish, I can only recall a single instruction: punch a hole.
This had been happening a lot lately, so often that it’s no longer upsetting, the way a single dandelion in the grass will prompt you to furiously dig up its root, but a yard full of teetering yellow crowns will elicit little more than a shrug. I’d be at the bank, updating my father’s accounts, when my mind would go blank. The teller would be left staring at me, brow furrowed, repeating, Ma’am? Ma’am? He’d begin making assumptions about my health. She’s still young, so it must be medication. Or drugs. A few seconds later, my mind would find its way back, like a dog who’d stepped out to fetch the paper. In its mouth, it would be holding a word or a phrase, something I’d heard or read recently. Something benign that had become entangled with one or more of the half-buried traumas cluttering up my thoughts.
Punch a hole. I repeat the phrase over and over – chanting to force the meaning out of the words. I’m a Hare Krishna who’s learned the wrong prayer. With each inhale, the scent of sweet blackstrap muddles with the fiery fragrances wafting out of my mother’s spice rack. Clove. Cinnamon. A few cloudy jars that haven’t been opened in decades and look to be preserving hardened scabs of god-knows-what. I’ve practised taking shallow breaths to keep from sneezing.
I stamp the cookies on a foot-and-a-half stretch of butcher block in the corner of the kitchen. It was my father’s refusal to use a cutting board that made this the only usable space for rolling cookie dough or pie crusts. The cutting board’s made of wood too, you know? He said this as he chopped onions and broke down raw chickens with a dull, heavy cleaver. He said this as though he genuinely believed I might not know the difference. In the morning, waiting for the kettle to boil, I still watch the sunlight pool in the rough, shallow divots, every nick and cut standing out as an ink-black wound.
Our two-storey rust-brown row house passed through three generations before settling with my parents. By the time I was born, neighbours had begun to dismiss our hand-me-down home as a relic of more prosperous times: one-time opulence in a shabby state of decay. Our tired front door slumped in its frame. It had been taken off its hinges and planed so many times that it merely defined the entryway, without holding in the heat or keeping out the mice. The aluminum flashing beneath the eaves had blown free in some long-forgotten storm, exposing the underside of the roof peaks. On occasion, crumbs of black rot would twirl like snowflakes down to the sidewalk below. Stories were told that if you caught one on your tongue, all your teeth would fall right out of your head. My parents could never afford to paint the clapboard in one season, so each side of the house was a shade different from the one around the corner.
Right up until the day I left for Montreal, I shared a bedroom with my sister, Kate. We slept on narrow army cots that made me think of pool tables because of the circular holes in the green fabric where the steel legs connected to the frame. Sometimes while I slept, I’d get a foot or an arm caught in one of the holes and begin having nightmares about drowning or being swallowed by a giant snake.
Kate was eleven years older. She was always crying and never went to school. She ate every meal in our cramped bedroom, and in the summertime, we would scratch our skin raw because ants would be attracted to the crumbs underneath her sheets.
My mother told me that in her youth, Kate had sparkled with innate brilliance. Math. Science. She read at a high-school level in only grade four. And she could juggle. Four balls. Five balls. She got so good that she started juggling with no balls at all. You had to see it, my mother said. Her movements were so convincing you’d believe there were objects flying through the air in front of you. But really, there was nothing there at all.
My mother was pregnant with me the morning she woke to the sounds of Kate crying. I thought she’d hurt herself, my mother said. She was so loud and blubbery. Like she was going to hyperventilate.
Kate cried on and off for two days without explanation. When my mother brought her to a doctor, he dismissed them both, saying it was likely just puberty. Kids, particularly girls, become fragile at this age, the doctor said. But they almost always find a way of putting themselves back together.
As the months went by, Kate showed no signs of improvement. She would sometimes cry for hours. Other times, she would go days without talking or making a sound. It was as though she’d been struck by a wave, my mother said. It crashed, then receded, making off with her joy and talents as though they were nothing more than the change in her pockets or the sandals on her feet.
My parents kept taking her to doctors. Bipolar. Depression. Obsessive-compulsive. Kate was always getting new diagnoses.
I thought she had anxiety? I once asked over breakfast.
My father and I were sat at our Formica kitchen table, sopping up fluorescent clots of egg yolk with our toast. A few inches away, a cold egg lay bleeding out on my mother’s plate. Kate’s cries were a twisted siren song that never failed to lure my mother up to our bedroom. She could be gone for hours then, rocking her adult daughter in her arms and cooing softly in her ear.
They all come with anxiety, my father replied.
I met David in Montreal. I had a scholarship and student loan and was studying social work at McGill. David was pre-law. He was a few years older, though looked considerably younger. Slight and sharp-featured. His expressions changed rapidly and he looked as though he were forever deciding whether to sneeze. He wore round, gold-rimmed glasses that reminded me of a piano-playing mouse from a cartoon I’d seen as a girl. On our first date – a coffee shop on McTavish Street – David shared that his father had recently been appointed to the Senate.
I was wearing a jean jacket with an enamel pin of a uterus on the pocket. In my bag were Betty Friedan and Audre Lorde books that I’d bought from Argo on rue Sainte- Catherine. I’d gone on dates before and – though I knew men liked to project generosity, even if they weren’t especially generous – I always made a point of at least offering to pay my own way. But this detail about David’s father being a senator. It didn’t seem like I was betraying myself when I allowed him to pick up our cheques or surprise me with a trip to New York for New Year’s Eve. He brought me to restaurants with views of the Hudson River, places with dim lighting and white linen tablecloths that were stained with thin, black rings from the sticky bottles of balsamic that came with the bread. My parents give me money, David said. I want to spend it on us.
We got married in the garden of the Château Vaudreuil, the two of us standing beneath an arch of pink and yellow chrysanthemums. Before the ceremony, my mother whisked David through the garden, introducing him to her sisters one after the other. She called him Rose’s lawyer. When someone asked why they hadn’t seen Kate, my mother muttered something about a fear of flying, then swung David to the next relative.
I knew Kate wouldn’t come. Just to be sure, I asked David if he minded not having bridal parties. The mere possibility of Kate weeping in my ear as I said my vows was enough to make me want to call off the wedding.
Can’t you tell me one nice story about your sister? he asked.
We were lying in bed, shuffling Post-it notes with our guests’ names around a cardboard seating chart. I moved an uncle to the farthest corner of the garden, then closed my eyes to better consider the echoes of my childhood. But there was nothing I could hold onto. It was like wading into an ocean of jellyfish; formless memories drifted around me, switching places, disappearing or blending into something new entirely.
What about Christmas? David asked.
I laughed without meaning to, sounding like a single guitar string plucked too hard. When I was twelve, I said, our parents convinced us to spend Christmas with our grandparents. Kate was twenty-three but they still had to bribe her with extra presents. And even then, we barely made it to the highway before she started crying. She was scared of seeing our family. We hadn’t seen most of them in years and she was worried about what they would think of her. Our parents promised that Kate wouldn’t have to see anyone. That she could spend the entire vacation in our grandparents’ basement, with only our mother allowed down over the stairs. So instead of being together that year, our dad did all the visiting while Mom stayed at home stringing popcorn garland and keeping an eye on Kate. And I–
The jellyfish in my mind snapped apart, as though a change in the current had made the water inhospitable. Only a single glistening form remained, floating near my hip. For the first time, I felt as though I could reach down and hold it, only the pain would be excruciating.
And what? asked David. He was staring at me but I couldn’t recall the last words I’d said or how far I’d gotten into my story.
Once we got home, I said, at the first sign of her tears, I’d leave the house. I’d step outside and just walk away. Otherwise, I’d wind up resisting the urge to press a pillow over her face.
David and I bought a home on Bernard Avenue. The kitchen was large and open – timeless was how the realtor described it. There was a stainless-steel convection oven and so many whitewashed shelves where I could already picture ceramic containers of dried pasta and lentils and the cow-shaped cookie jar I’d brought from Newfoundland. The house was out of our price range. Still, I kept making appointments to see it by myself. I asked for tours at different hours of the day. Early in the morning. An hour before sunset. Each room had massive bay windows where warm sunlight dripped down your entire body before pooling on the hardwood like honey.
I left the house feeling dizzy. Each visit whipped my insides like egg whites until they’d doubled in size and it felt as though I was going to burst. We paid twenty thousand over our limit to cover the down payment. You’ll owe me for this, David said. We were sat side by side in fake leather armchairs in an office at the back of the bank. David was drumming the banker’s silver pen against the edge of the laminate desk, allowing his words to hang in the air between us. I remember feeling as though I could actually see them, spelled out with giant foil balloon letters.
After signing my name, I turned to the banker and said, You don’t keep it on a string. The man had red hair that was greying at the temples. When he cocked his head, he looked like a fox assessing its prey. The pen, I explained, it’s not on a string.
No. The banker laughed. We don’t keep them tied down back here.
A year later, I told David I’d been considering going back to school for my master’s. He was sitting cross-legged on our bed, preparing for an upcoming brief. In front of him were stacks of papers that he’d assembled neatly atop the duvet. He reminded me of a child on a beach, surrounded by a kingdom of sand.
David pulled a paper from one of the piles and waved it with a flourish towards the half-dozen wine-stained tumblers cluttering up our bedside tables – evidence we were already struggling to keep up with the housework. He said that going back to school would mean even less getting done around the house and here he was already with a full slate of clients. We might have hired a girl a few hours a day, but then he reminded me that it was my fault we were this deep in debt.
I asked to sit beside him but he didn’t respond. I pressed my body against his and ran my fingers through his thinning blond hair. When I reached down to squeeze between his legs, I knocked over some papers and he swatted away my hand.
I’m sorry, I–
Leave it, he said, rolling off the bed, already headed for the door.
I followed him into the hallway. Above us, a lightbulb in the ceiling fan was flickering in time with his heavy footsteps.
And then he hit me.
The following morning, I packed up my Betty Friedan and Audre Lorde books. I phoned my mother and said I would be coming home. Just for a little while. My voice quavered when I acknowledged that it would be just me. Rose, my mother sighed, you’ve got to learn to stand by your man.
I hung up the phone and finished packing. As I folded my shirts and underwear, I replayed the conversation with my mother like a movie. I cut back and forth between our faces, imagining my mother with a big blond Tammy Wynette bouffant.
Punch a hole. I slide open a cluttered drawer of rolling pins and KitchenAid attachments. After some digging, I find the metal piping tip I use for cutting out the centres of jam jams. Outside the window, a streetlight shines down on a pair of juncos hopping through the freshly fallen snow; their feet leave tracks like music notes across a white page. Directly above, a mangled bird feeder sways from a raw, spindly lilac branch. The cracked wooden base has given way on one side, scattering the seeds across Gower Street, making easy work for scavengers. I slip the piping tip onto the end of my finger and waggle it towards the birds like Margaret Hamilton.
I hadn’t planned on staying in St. John’s. I just needed a few months to regroup. To save a little money before going back to school. I made up a bed on the living room sofa and packed my clothes back into my suitcase whenever I took anything off the line.
But then on Canada Day, my mother got out of bed, went down to the kitchen and placed the plastic electric kettle onto the propane stove. As the smoke alarm began to shriek, I struggled to distinguish real life from the slowly diffusing chaos of my dreams. I was overcome by the sensation of being stuck in Montreal traffic, inhaling the dry, toxic fumes billowing out of some great diesel-burning monstrosity. I followed the sound of voices to the window, only then spotting the vague red ribbons swirling through the dense cloud of smoke escaping our front door.
The fire department let us return home the following afternoon. There was no permanent damage, though the air remained harsh – as though the fire was still burning – and we were told to keep an eye out for mould, particularly in the damp areas where they’d sprayed water. No one talked about what happened, all of us acting as though it would be too much bother to try and be heard above the humming dehumidifiers.
A week later, my mother disappeared in Dominion. When I found her, she was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the housewares section. “I peed my pants,” she whispered. Her eyes were bloodshot and her skin so white that the veins in her neck looked like frozen serpents trapped beneath the ice. I took off my jacket, wrapped it around her waist and led her to the Joe Fresh dressing room, where I helped her change into a pair of clean, black yoga pants.
My mother’s condition continued to deteriorate. As the weeks went by, she grew less self-aware, no longer embarrassed by her mistakes. She yelled at my father for neglecting to put out a saucer of milk for a pet cat that had been dead for almost twenty years. She couldn’t remember which cupboard held the mugs, so she made her tea in an old E.T. eggcup. On top of that, Kate’s crying stopped registering as a sign of concern.
One evening, we were watching Jeopardy! in the living room when the sounds of Kate’s sobs began spreading out from her bedroom like black tea through still water. My mother didn’t take her eyes off the screen. The neighbours must be fighting again, she whispered.
I glanced towards my father, who was already staring at me expectantly. He was teetering out of his armchair, like a tomato plant carrying all its fruit on one side. I judged his body language as insincere, knowing that a man who genuinely wants to do something – like snatch up a bill at the end of a meal – will plough forward as decisively as an icebreaker. But when there’s nothing in it for them, they’ll stop halfway, leaving the door open for someone else.
I reached for the remote and turned up the volume on the TV, ignoring my father as he shakily made his way upstairs, huffing loudly on every step.
In August, my mother slipped getting out of the tub and had to be taken to St. Clare’s. The young doctor led me out into the hallway and advised that I make visitations part of my routine for the foreseeable future. And check in at reception, the doctor said. Depending on the day, her physical or mental trauma may be the priority. I expect she’ll change floors often. The doctor had a hand cupped to the back of her neck with a single long fingernail unwinding the tight gossamer coils behind her ear. She was wearing brown synthetic Oxfords laced with a double bow, like a child about to play tag in their church clothes. I wanted to tell her that I had other plans and that routine visitations did not fit into my foreseeable future. I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t kind to use a word like trauma and that she should have said symptom instead. But she was already headed back down the corridor.
I felt something like hunger pangs, a great gaping hole growing between my pelvis and ribs. It was as though my belly had been hollowed out, everything scooped up and taken away with a cheap, 1970s melon baller I could see it in my mind: my guts like cold fruit salad plopped in a jagged, carved-out watermelon bowl. There they were, right behind one of those gelatine desserts with floating kiwis and tinned pineapple.
When I came back to reality, I was standing in the open doorway of a room that was not my mother’s. Inside, two male nurses were tossing a bed sheet over a housekeeper’s head. All three were ignoring the elderly patient in the room who was complaining of cramps in her feet. She was sat in a wheelchair without a trace of flesh below her thighs.
My father was already supervising Kate, so there was no way he could also manage visitations and constantly changing hospital rooms. And so, he and I became reluctant caretakers, each responsible for our respective patient. On our brief periods of downtime, I’d bake muffins or jam jams to bring to my mother while my father busied himself repairing all the things that had gone neglected around our house.
He rented scaffolding and reinstalled the flashing beneath the eaves. He removed radiators and electrical faceplates and plugged up mouse holes with steel wool. When he heard that the local heritage society had awarded a neighbour one of those little copper shields denoting houses of historic significance, my father began investing in antique light fixtures from the shops along the west end of Water Street.
There’s a house on Cochrane that got a plaque for being the first home rebuilt after the Great Fire, he said. He was standing on a kitchen chair, clumsily digging into a nest of wires beneath a ceiling fan.
That’s not worth preserving? I asked.
Not when our house withstood the damn fire. We didn’t so much as lose a shingle. Ours should get a plaque for being impervious to flames.
Mom certainly tested that theory.
He stretched to the full height of himself, sending a screwdriver tumbling from the breast pocket of his shirt.
Do you even know what you’re doing? I asked.
He snipped a wire encased in brittle red plastic. There was a heavy clunk as the fan crashed down to the floor. When the dust cleared, my father was sticking out his tongue. I thought this would be the end of his teasing but then he licked his finger and touched it to the exposed wire dangling above his head. Instantly, his face wrinkled and every muscle in his body tightened. He began to convulse, falling off the kitchen chair, staggering on his feet with his fingers clawing at his chest.
He waited until I screamed to stop trembling. As soon as his body relaxed, he reached up and coolly tapped the end of my nose. Do I even know what I’m doing?
Go and die, I said, giving him a gentle shove. Go and die as quick as you can.
He died later that evening when he removed a wall sconce without switching off the breaker.
Bonavista. I’m twelve years old.
It’s a frigid cold Tibb’s Eve and Kate is screeching from the basement. My mother asks me to fetch my father from my uncle’s flake house, so I stop playing Skip-Bo with my grandmother and put on my coat.
My uncle owns a boat and wears his fluorescent orange work clothes year-round. A few days earlier, he asked me for a kiss and I had to hold my breath against the stink of fish guts and gasoline.
I take the winding path to the water’s edge, erasing the moonlit town with blasts of my frozen breath. I can’t yet see the light from the flake house, but already the racket of thunderous laughter has drowned out the ocean waves breaking against the nearby rocks.
I stand shivering outside the seaside hovel, intimidated by the racket and the scent of sawdust and tobacco coming from within. I want to turn around and run back home. To tell my mother that I’m not comfortable around men I don’t know. But if I come home alone, it will just be one more thing on my mother’s plate. And then I’ll be no better than my sister.
A thin beam of golden light escapes the door jamb and I slip my fingers inside, revealing nearly a dozen bare-chested men. Their heads are thrown back, howling for joy or bloody murder or both. I see my father asleep in the corner. His body is curled like a dog in a dusty, worn recliner.
My uncle is beside me then, kneeling so close that I can feel his breath on my neck and his fingers on the small of my back. I imagine him taking me by the hand and leading me back to my grandparents’ home. But instead, he opens his mouth and blows softly in my ear. There’s another great roar from the men as my face begins to flush.
I start having nightmares. I pee the bed until the following spring, but no one notices because I’m already doing my own laundry.
When the cookies are cool enough to touch, I lift one of the warm, brown halos into my palm; it’s almost weightless. Holding it up to my face, I peer through, looking across the street to where snow-crusted rooftops glimmer in the moonlight. I take inventory of my surroundings: the spice rack, the scarred countertops, the overfull sink of dishes that have been soaking since the morning of my father’s funeral. The view is familiar – entirely expected – and yet I’m overcome by the sensation of peeking in on someone else’s life.
Punch a hole. I guess how long it’s been since I last thought of David, since I last thought of all the times someone had gone off with some small piece of me for themselves. I never know which memory will come first, but one never comes without the others.
I firk a hand down into the icy dishwater and pry the plug free. The kitchen pipes rattle as they gulp down the greasy solution; I give the drain a few seconds’ head start before turning on the tap. Upstairs, I hear Kate beginning to cry.
Losing your present, it’s like staring at an advertisement on the back wall of a subway stop. The trains arrive, block your view, and when they leave, you sometimes find that the image on the wall has changed.
I come back into the moment, registering a sensation like the time David’s niece’s dog peed on my toes. The sink is overflowing and my socks are soaking up the warm dishwater. I lunge to turn off the faucet, catching my hand in the scalding hot stream. Instead of reeling back, I will myself to hold it there until the chill has left my bones. Until my skin has become pink and numb. I close my eyes, picturing a hole burning through the back of my hand and the sink running over with glistening red soap bubbles filled with my blood.
I hang my socks over the back of a kitchen chair, then begin spooning jam onto the cookies. I sandwich the tops and bottoms, stacking them neatly inside a metal tin. I don’t bother with new socks before shrugging on my coat, tightening the laces of my Sorel boots and placing our electric kettle onto the propane stove. When I step outside our home for the last time, I make sure to leave the front door unlocked. I wait until I hear the smoke alarm before setting off for St. Clare’s. The cold air is clean and the further I walk, the deeper I can breathe.
Joshua Goudie’s short stories have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. In 2021, his novel manuscript, The Last Portrait, was awarded the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters Percy Janes First Novel Award. Joshua lives and writes in St. John’s.