Turn the Soil

Usually in the stormy months of autumn the propeller plane burps and bumps its way up the Straight of Georgia to Comox, where it drops off the younger half of the passengers before its eight-minute hop to Campbell River. But today, the flight is eerily calm—it has been since Vancouver. The plane is holding its breath, like me.

“But your life, Janice,” my mom said on the phone, as if coming to help her put my step-dad Jim in a nursing home would ruin all I’d accomplished in Manhattan.

“It’s a weekend. The magazine will survive,” I said.

But now I wasn’t so sure. Upon leaving, the editor-in-chief R.J. had slipped in yet another mention of that job in Production.

I told him, “I’ll be back at my desk Monday morning.”

Rain pelts the window, distorting the dense copse of Douglas Firs on the lip of land that separates Comox from Campbell River, pushing the latter just that much further into isolation. The trees are lined up like a hostile army, shaking their branches like fists, telling me to go home.

*

In the arrivals gate I make out Mom’s willowy figure nibbling at her fingers. Her brown curls have grown thin and droopy, her frame half collapsed into her shrinking body. Her face looks tired. Her eyes widen as I draw near. “Where’s Jim?”

Her hand flutters in front. “Let’s just get out of here.”

A single conveyer belt ejects suitcases. My charcoal titanium one sits at the base of a mountain of black canvas pieces with too-shiny zippers. It looks like the luggage department of Wal-Mart ganged up on a display valise in Barney’s. A woman with a baby strapped to her and a grey-haired man in a track suit each reach for identical-looking baggage. The man says, “I guess we had the same idea!” Laughter ensues.

I’m trying to find a network to connect to on my phone when I realize Mom is already out the door and practically at the parking lot. “Wait,” I call after her, but she doesn’t wait.

In the car, she tells me that Jim fell again. “He was up the tree.”

“Why didn’t you stop him?”

She has used adjectives like “too-far-gone” to describe his condition over the past year, and on Skype everything looks shaky and distorted without throwing Parkinson’s into the mix. I haven’t been to visit since Jim sold his shrimping license and my mom retired from her job as a cashier at Superstore almost six years ago. Part of the allure of coming this time, the reason I risked irking R.J. and the other managing editors, was because Jim, who basically pissed all over my high school memories, has fallen off his high horse. And this, I had to see.

When Jim came along, unemployed and still living in his mom’s basement, my mom swooned. He moved into our Richmond house, the one Dad pretty much built from scratch, and forced my brother Scott and I to share a room. All so Jim could have a den—a place to retreat after Mom fed him and pumped up his ego like a bike tire. We weren’t allowed in there, nor in the ensuite bathroom or half the cupboards in the kitchen. After Scott left for university, they moved to Campbell River so Jim could work the seas. My childhood home sold in a day—Dad had poured every spare minute he had into fixing up that place—and I finished the last days of high school camped out on friends’ couches.

*

In the car, Mom attempts to put the wrong key in the ignition. Then, when she backs up the car, she comes close to hitting another one parked several meters away. “Stop!” I shout. “I’ll drive.”

“You have a license?”

“Of course I do.”

“But you live in New York?”

“That doesn’t matter. I still have my Canadian license. And even if I had one from the States… oh never mind. Just turn off the car.”

“No.”

We sit there for a while, between two parking spots, looking out the window at all the non-dysfunctional families who float past, shooting us bewildered looks.

Finally she capitulates. She tears off her seat belt frantically and opens the door with no regard for her foot, which until this moment had been firmly pressed down on the brake. I have to jam the gearshift into park to stop the car from rolling back and hitting something. The sound is like a fork in a garbage disposal unit—metal on metal—but we stop, and something like relief passes briefly over Mom’s face.

I slide into the driver’s seat.

*

The first thing I notice when I enter the small bungalow is a bright pink Post-It note on a framed print of Klimt’s The Kiss. Scott’s name is scribbled on it, crafted by a shaky hand—Jim no doubt.

Tall and lanky, with a stained shirt and wild grey hair, he shuffles across the living room carpet. He greets me with a stiff hug, which is a metaphor for our relationship—congenial but with carefully considered limitations. I point to the Post-It and smile tightly and expectantly.

He holds his shaking right hand with his left to steady it. “Your mom’s idea.”

The house smells like a cannery—sour, pungent, and mouldy. The furniture is in a different configuration and there are Post-It notes on everything that hangs or stands.

“What’s with all the labeling?” I ask Mom as she comes in behind me lugging my heavy suitcase.

“So you’ll know who gets what when I die.”

I want to share this so-sad-it’s-funny anecdote with Scott, but he probably won’t laugh anymore. In recent years, he’s switched his position, taking Mom’s side on most topics. The distance made his heart grow fonder, I guess. Or maybe men are more forgiving. He and Mom have gardening in common and Scott’s kids like to come visit because she has a pond with goldfish. When Mom first arrived in Campbell River, I’d crack jokes about the city’s spiritless Spirit Square, but then when the jokes got old—actually, when Scott stopped laughing—I stopped coming.

“Where’s Scott anyways? You said on the phone he couldn’t help out.”

Mom picks at a cuticle. “He says he’s busy with work.”

This is an interesting twist. Has Scott smartened up?

Jim announces, “I’ve made a spot of lunch if you’re hungry?” He squints at me over the top of his thick eye glasses.

Jim cooks?

My mom disappears, presumably into the spare room with my luggage. But at the table when she still doesn’t appear, I ask Jim if she’s joining us. He shrugs.

After a few mouthfuls of the chicken paella, I compliment him on his cooking. “I haven’t tried that much of it.” I don’t mean for it to sound pedantic, but it does.

He smiles. “Your mom… has been going through some changes.”

I want to ask, “Does this mean she doesn’t wait on you like a servant anymore?” But I need this visit to go smoothly, two days max, so I can get back to my life. The plan, I’ve decided, is to get Jim tucked away and forget Mom’s momentary loss of sanity in the car. Ignorance is bliss, I chant like a mantra in my head in tune with Jim’s vibrating fork that scratches his plate. His tremor is the same as I remember it from six years ago.

I notice a Post-It on the side of the table we’re eating at—“Scott” again.

“It’s a control thing, the Post-Its,” Jim says as if he can read my mind. He’s talking about my mom, but it’s odd to hear him address her this rationally, thoughtfully. He used to treat her more like hired help. He shovels rice into his mouth, taking a break to swig from a can of soda and burp.

“You don’t seem ready for a home.”

“Will be soon. Driving at night’s a bitch. That sort of thing.”

“I don’t think that’s related to Parkinson’s.”

“Soon I’ll be a vegetable.”

“I don’t—.”

“Look.” He raises his voice a little. “It was her idea.”

“Really?”

He leans back in the chair, regaining composure. “They have satellite TV—sports and shit—so I ain’t complaining.”

I nod. Yes, this is Jim in a nutshell: Creature comforts, peace and quiet. He wants for nothing else. It should come as no surprise then, that he prefers to spend the rest of his days in a nursing home—quiet and sterile.

“Your mom’s got me climbing ladders pickin’ fruit and shit. I think I’m safer in a home.” A huge laugh tumbles out of his yellow-toothed mouth.

“The apple tree? But she doesn’t even like apples.”

“Like I said, she’s changing.” He shrugs. “This house, moving here… this was all her.” He drops his fork onto his plate with a clang and says in a more serious tone, “She wanted this and now she’ll get it, apples and all.”

*

Once I begged her to leave him. Pleaded. I reasoned, “If you lived somewhere more easily accessible, I might come visit more often.”

She said, “You may like being cramped up in some apartment, people on top of you, but not me.” Then she got that faraway look. “You should have seen my clematis this year.”

*

The silence is like impending death in this town and it surrounds the house. The unusually calm skies and ocean lull me into a kind of trance. On the first day, I settle into a game show on TV and wear pyjamas until noon.

There are three voice messages from R.J. that I ignore.

Slumped over a giant mug of scalded, syrupy Folgers, trying hard to shake my jet lag grogginess, I watch Jim’s bony hands shake a local newspaper. His face is hidden and all I can see is one of the main stories on the front cover: Til Death Do Us Part. Despite Jim’s unwavering tremor, I can make out the details. Joe and Delores Smithton both go into cardiac arrest on their 50th anniversary and die minutes apart, holding hands. Instead of the little black square the newspaper uses to punctuate the end of a new story, there’s a heart.

“Old geezers dying in Campbell River. How is that front-page news?”

Jim grunts.

My phone sits on the table, barely used in the 24 hours I’ve been here. I pick it up and send a curt text to R.J. to get him off my back—Will call when I can.

From behind the newsprint, Jim tells me a Tim Horton’s has opened a block away. Strangely, this fills me with a certain store of optimism for the coming day. Maybe it’s because Dad used to bring home a baker’s dozen on Saturdays after Scott’s hockey games, and we’d devour them after dinner while watching the Stanley Cup. So now donuts remind me of winter and wood fires and smelly hockey equipment and Don Cherry. And Dad.

I think of Joe and Delores Smithton and how Mom and Dad would be getting close to 50 years together if he hadn’t drunk himself to death.

Picking at a stale muffin, I consider what to do next. There are probably over 100 email messages from work. I’ve broken my own rule of not letting even an hour pass without clearing out the junk. My account will be a deluge of frantic requests and a myriad CC’ed messages that have nothing to do with me, but must be read and filed accordingly to make space for the new emails. And there’s the job I’m going for, its looming deadline rankling like a mohair sweater.

On my phone, my finger hovers over the little Gmail icon, but instead of tapping, I hold it down until it begins dancing and I can delete it from my phone.

I pull down the newspaper and smile at Jim behind. He peers out over his glasses, frowning. His angry face with its sunken cheeks and droopy eyelids reminds me of a cartoon.

*

Mom and I move through our errands slowly like we have weights on our hands and legs. First we pay car insurance at the little shack they call a government office and then pick up milk at Thrifty’s and cheese at Discovery Foods, because that way you save 35 cents. We pick up wine for her and more soda for him, then hit a store called Kidlets to choose a onesie for Scott’s youngest kid, before going next door to London Drugs. Mom greets the cashier at the front of the store like they’re best friends.

Down the crowded aisle, full of discounted toys and holiday Starbucks coffee and other cheap junk that no one buys until it goes on clearance, we find the pharmacy. It’s not like New York City where the lines are long and there’s nowhere to sit except at the blood pressure station, where the seat is always taken. Here there are several chairs, even a sofa, and miniature offices with Plexiglas, where Nervous Nelly types like my mom can discuss incontinence with a professional in privacy.

A small, heavy-set woman with rosy cheeks waddles over, but before she can help us, an older woman with glasses and an official-looking white jacket calls out from across the pharmacy. “I’ll take care of it.”

Tanya, according to her nametag, approaches cautiously. Mom’s jaw tenses. They clearly have history. She looks my age, but far too delicate to take on Mom. “What can I do for you today, Ms. Jennings?”

Jennings. Jim’s name always made me cringe for its dorky alliteration.

Mom sets down her hefty purse on the counter, bloated and imposing, but hugs it like she wants to put some distance between her and Tanya. She produces an orange vile and shakes the pills inside furiously. “Generic.”

Tanya nods. “Yes. And how can I help you today?”

“The doctor absolutely forbade generic. It gives me—.” She looks behind her furtively before whispering, “It gives me diarrhoea.”

“I see.” The pharmacist said, taking the pills from my mom and examining the container. “We’ll need a note—.”

Mom’s fist lands hard on the counter and her purse barely moves, weighed down as it is from all the pills and papers and glasses and books and a wallet brimming with cards she never uses, as well as half-drunk water bottles and sun visors and all the things she won’t leave in the car for fear of theft. “I gave you a note. Yesterday. From the insurance company.”

The pharmacist’s forehead crumples. I can see doubt in her eyes, though she tries to hide it with concern or deep thought by rubbing her chin. “Let’s have a look,” she says and turns to her screen. She types and I wonder if she’s actually got the computer on, or if she’s just tapping keys randomly. “I was on duty all day yesterday and I can’t say I—.”

“Are you calling me a liar?” Mom shrieks, but in a quiet and non-attention-gathering way—a technique she has perfected over the years. It takes talent to yell quietly; for most people it comes out like a seal’s bark.

“No, certainly not,” she says calmly, adjusting her glasses.

“It was late morning.”

I know this was when we were at the airport. Mom’s eyes search me frantically, imploringly. Taking a deep breath, I begin to nod slowly. “Uh huh.” Words spill out over my lips, “I drove her here myself.”

Mom shoots the pharmacist a hostile look, hands upturned. “See?”

*

In the car, Mom sobs. “This is horrible.”

“What is?”

Inelegantly, I rest my hand on her forearm. It would be too weird to hug her, so I let my fingers sit there but they begin to sweat as she continues to weep. All around us are the muffled sounds of shopping carts colliding, car doors slamming, children whining. My arm grows tired, my palm hot and sticky.

The phone in my pocket beeps. I curse the fact I haven’t yet put it on vibrate mode. Mom stops crying and looks at me, red-eyed. “Who is that? Why does that thing keep making such a bloody racket?”

“It’s work. Don’t worry about it.”

“Is there some sort of emergency?”

“No.” I put the car in reverse and begin to release my foot on the brake when she slams the gearshift into park. It’s the same metallic screech from the airport parking lot. “What the hell?”

“I wanted you to be proud,” Mom says.

“Proud of what?” My heart hammers against the wall of my chest. Scott and I thought she was crazy how she let Jim push her around. We understood it with Dad, because that was before women’s liberation and all that. But to do it again, to just walk right into an unbalanced situation with all that she knew, all she’d learned from living with Dad, that was such a disappointment. The only thing Jim had going for him was sobriety.

She cries fresh tears, her hunched back shaking.

I take a deep breath. “Look, let’s just get through this day.”

“You always wanted him gone,” she says, staring out the window at the parking lot. “This is the best I could do.”

*

I pluck at the frilly dress of an old doll that sits on the mantelpiece, a small blue Post-It note that says “Janice” precariously perched on its belly. It’s the first tag with my name. I know because I’ve been turning the place upside down looking for one. “What does she expect me to do with this?”

Jim is on his leather recliner watching sports. “Beats me. Maybe she thought you could give it to a kid or something.”

“You know I have no children, right? Scott is the one reproducing?”

He peers over his glasses, “Your mom’s the one going doo-la-li, not me. I got the shakes, ‘member?” He holds up his arm and his tremor revs up. I wonder if he can make it go faster on demand, when the situation suits him. Like when he wants a spot in the nursing home. Or when she does.

“What is Mom thinking?”

“She still has her wedding dress in the closet for you.” Jim averts the question. Or perhaps he’s hitting it straight on.

“But I’m not even dating anyone.”

“Don’t ask me.” He raises his arms. “It’s from your Mom and Dad’s wedding. Not ours of course.”

Jim and Mom got married in Cancun. Alone.

He looks me up and down as if sizing up a prawn haul or a Coho his friend just reeled in. “Probably still fits.”

*

Inside Mom and Jim’s room it smells like them, a mixture of dandruff and cologne that must be cheap because it lingers in a cloying way. The air is warmer in here than elsewhere in the house with the sun streaming through the vinyl blinds. The bed is awash in late-afternoon orange light.

Mom has kept things I never imagined I’d see again—like a clay mask of her face I made in Mr. Barrett’s grade 8 class, with brown spirals for her curly hair. There’s a graduation photo at her bedside and pictures of Scott’s kids as babies littering the vanity.

I’m surprised more by what’s not present than what is. No hint of my father exists, even in the childish art projects she’s collected—the collages and drawings and hanging scrolls. Nor are there any photos of Scott and me as kids because those would have involved both of my parents.

Surely Mom thinks of Dad—his piercing blue eyes and infectious giggle. The way he’d come up behind you and squeeze your underarms until you almost peed your pants. The thick Welsh accent he never lost even after 15 years in Canada and the way he tried and failed to teach me the impossible phlegm-clearing throat noises you need to pronounce the “longest word in the world,” Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwll-llantysiliogogogoch (and how dubious I’d been of this claim). How he would drink too much and break things, but by morning, all would be forgotten and he’d go about his routine glassy-eyed and shabbily dressed as if nothing had happened. That’s the enduring image of Dad: wrinkled but stoic.

Jim is also crumpled, but also broken. Even before Parkinson’s, when he pushed Mom around and pushed us away, he was defective. At 14 years old I knew he was past his prime and repellent to women, and that was why he lashed out at me and Scott—because we knew.

On the wedding dress I find another Post-It with my name on it for a grand total of two—one on a doll and one on a dress. Could she be any more transparent?

When I rustle the plastic wrapping, the blue square slips off and flutters to the ground. The handwriting, I notice, isn’t wobbly. It’s neat and straight like Mom. Anger boils up inside me and I rip the dress’s protective cover to get it out faster.

Aside from the gaudy sequins plaguing the bodice, I like the dress. The plunging neckline and empire waist have an almost art deco feel. Suddenly there’s a long groan in the living room and I drop the dress and run.

Jim is huddled on the carpet nursing his right foot, a remote control nearby. Tears stain his cheeks when he looks up at me. “I’m sorry, Janice.”

*

Mom crouches near the hot tub. Brilliant flowers bloom over her head along a wooden trellis. The patio furniture is faded and dusty but still inviting. The paint on the deck is chipped, and I remember stripping it about seven years ago with Scott. That was before he had kids, when we used to do tequila shots at D.J’s Lounge downtown just to make our visits to Campbell River more fun. More tolerable.

Mom’s gloves come up to her elbows, fingertips brown with soil, and she digs and scrapes and moves dirt around, filling holes with flowers that came from another patch of earth somewhere else in this world. Her pace is mechanical, and she approaches gardening with the same detachment she had when replacing Dad with Jim. She edits, the way I trim for word count at work. But it’s the weeds she cuts out and discards, as she has done with the first 40 years of her life with Dad.

*

Two suitcases and an old hockey stick are all Jim takes with him to the home. During the drive downtown, the 20-minute slumber from Willow Point along the highway where cars crawl below the already-conservative speeding limit of 60 km, Mom grills Jim.

“Did you pack your electric razor?”

“And your slippers?”

“And that nice new book Scott sent for you to read?”

What else what he do with a book, I think, other than read. And what is my brother doing sending him stuff instead of coming? I’m certain it has something to do with Mom and Jim’s new marital arrangement.

The nursing home has a waterfall in the lobby, and marble floors, too. Jim’s bedroom is bigger than my whole apartment back in Manhattan, and all he brought fits in the closets and chest of drawers provided, with space to spare. Mom promises to come back to visit every day, and when they draw close to each other, I turn away. I’m used to them shouting at each other over the TV from their respective couches, not locked in a romantic embrace.

Just as we’re heading out the door, Jim suddenly grabs my arm. He squeezes me with as much force as he can, which isn’t a whole lot, and I can hear him wheezing from the exertion. He whispers in my ear, “Take care of her.”

*

I’m in the shower when I hear the smoke alarm going. In a towel, dripping water on the striped runner carpet, I pad down the hall to the kitchen. Something on the stovetop is burned beyond recognition. The charred remains nurture a few orange flames that threaten to jump out of the pan. I take hold of the handle and lift it, but when the fire tries to take a lick at my arm, I toss the entire thing at the sink. The crackling and sizzling eventually fades to a slow smoulder in the wet basin.

I call Mom but there’s no answer.

When the kitchen is cleaned up, the fire alarm reset, and my clothes cling to my still-wet body, I find Mom in her bedroom. On the bed, she stares at the wall, biting at her nails. I sit down next to her, their bed having lost a little of its sanctity with Jim gone, and take her hands with their bleeding cuticles into my own.

Our shoulders touch. She lays her head on mine.

“You must miss him,” I say.

She looks at me, studies my face quizzically, and says nothing.

*

In the kitchen, Mom puts on the kettle for tea, ignoring the mess in the sink. I grab a box of digestive cookies from the cupboard and fan out a few on a plate. We meet in the dining room where the tea steeps. She is talking about her roses, the ones her friend brought her back from the U.K. and I’m sipping my hot Earl Grey and melting into the chair.

The landline rings and she moves for it. I tell her to sit down and I get it on the fourth ring. R.J.’s voice explodes through the receiver. It startles me, like I’ve fallen into a bath of cold water. Two days have passed since I’ve heard his voice and now it sounds tinny. “What the fuck?”

“Hello to you, too.”

He sighs heavily. “You can’t get a signal there or something?”

“I did.”

“So, you’ve just been ignoring my calls?”

“I’ve been so busy.” I glance at my mom, sipping her tea, classical music wafting in from the stereo in the living room. “I’m going to need to stay a while longer.”

“Like how long?” His voice is tunnel-like, distant and muffled. He’s shaving while talking. Or maybe typing an email. Mom’s eyes are fixed on me.

“Not sure.”

“And what do I tell the Production team?”

“Whatever you want.”

He laughs, but not in a ha-ha way. “This is ludicrous. Do you know how hard I worked to get you on the shortlist for that job?”

I clench the phone tighter. “How hard you worked?”

Mom gets up when I hang up, and she flitters around, tidying. Only she puts the milk in the cupboard and the tea in the fridge.

We both go to the sliding glass door leading to the patio and peer through at the backyard. The sun is shining. Mom mentions planting the roses and asks if I want to help her. I say, “How about a vegetable garden instead?”

“It’s an awful lot of work.”

“I’ll turn the soil,” I tell her.

She raises an eyebrow. “What do you know about all that?”

“Not much.”

“Nah. Bit late in the year.”

I grasp her bony, delicate hand in my own and say, “It’s never too late, Mom.”

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Sarah Richards

Sarah Richards

Sarah Richards has been a freelance writer and editor for more than a decade. Her short stories have appeared in The Danforth Review, Room, and UNBUILD walls, and her non-fiction work has been published by Lonely Planet and BBC.com. She serves on the PRISM international editorial board, works as a writing mentor at Booming Ground, and is an MFA Candidate at the University of British Columbia. She currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two kids.
Sarah Richards

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