The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
—L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between
To hear my sister Fran talk about it, we grew up in Mayberry with June Cleaver as a mother and Mr. Rogers as a father. I sit back and marvel at stories about turkeys stuffed with Grandma’s secret recipe at Christmas and the smell of homemade cookies wafting through a pristine house as we kids giggled through the front door with our best friends in tow.
Like she believes it. Like we didn’t come home from school to find Mom dead-drunk and passed out in a puddle of her own piss. Like we weren’t scratching day and night from lice and bedbug bites. Like Mom never brought home “uncles” who in the middle of the night would much rather sneak into our room and into our beds than hers.
There were seven of us for a while. Mostly from different fathers. Thomas James was the best of everyone, tall and handsome, with laughing blue eyes and a dark-russet streak running through his otherwise white-blond hair. He died in foster care when he was twelve. They say he fell down the stairs, but I know different. Mr. Simpson only used the belt when he thought child services was checking up on him. Otherwise it was a sawed-off bat.
Bessie May starved to death at ten. She was the youngest. One day she just stopped eating. No one but Fran and I noticed. Mom was kind of happy, like it would save more money for another bottle. The doctor said the poor little mite wasted away from consumption or some shit like that. She died because she couldn’t face another Christmas in Mayberry.
Fran and I are the only ones left now. Kevin and Li’l Bobby died in prison. Two months apart, in the same facility. At the time, I was too tired to even read the reports on them. Even at nineteen I was too tired most days to get out of bed. Mom was long gone. Probably dead in some crack house or in a ditch somewhere, frozen or beat to death. She up and left right after Bessie May was dumped into the ground.
“Do you have the recipe for Grandma’s chestnut stuffing?” Fran asks. Like there was a recipe, let alone a grandmother. I narrow my eyes, as if I’m trying to recall, as if I have it stuck inside an ancient family recipe book somewhere, then say no; sadly, like it breaks my heart. In a way it does.
The ladies in the book club ‘tsk’ at the imaginary loss, their eyes sliding away from me and back to Fran with relief. I know I make them nervous when I show up for these things. Franny’s little sister, the professor. Dressed to the nines. Always so put together, black suit-jacket, severe glasses that wink in the afternoon light, briefcase sitting at my feet. They straighten their backs, hesitate with their opinions about whatever inane book they’ve read. One or two actually stand to give their reports.
We giggle about it later. After the solemn group leaves, Fran pulls out the plum cake she’s baked just for us. She smothers it with ice cream and whipping cream while I brew a strong, rich pot of coffee. Her house always has the aroma of baking, never quite hiding the underlying hint of bleach from her compulsive need to sterilize everything. In private we never reminisce about the “good ole days.” I take a small bite of cake and sip the bitter coffee and let the flavours mingle, making new memories. The tick of the cheap plastic clock is loud in the room as we sit lost in our own thoughts and the joy of eating.
“Jasper and I have given it considerable thought and we’ve decided to get a labradoodle,” Fran says. “A dog,” she explains.
I take another sip and another bite, the contrast of bitter against sweet is perfect. “Mitchell had a dog,” I say.
Fran’s forehead creases. “Mitchell? Which one was he again?” Like it’s just escaped her memory, like she knew him well. Like we used to sit and play bridge together every Saturday night. Fran and Jasper, Mitchell and I. Sipping wine. Nibbling cheese and laughing about the antics of Mitchell’s dog, Benny.
“He’s the guy I dated in my last year of university.” I take another long swallow of coffee, then press my finger against the remaining crumbs on my plate before touching it to the tip of my tongue. The little bits of harmony rest there until I wash them away with the last of my coffee.
We both know that Franny won’t be getting a dog, labradoodle or otherwise. Jasper isn’t a dog person, he’s not a kid person, he’s barely a person, person. Neither of them has the time, the fortitude, nor the capacity to care for anyone but themselves. Franny will continue to obsessively clean her house after work each day. Jasper will continue to stay at the office and obsessively go over the day’s spreadsheets late into the evenings. Every Friday night they’ll go out to dinner and give each other an account of their week, then come home and spend the night in their separate beds, in their separate rooms, and continue living their separate lives.
I’ll go home to my current Mitchell, or Darren, or Bob and begin to wonder what I ever saw in him. Then arrange the situation so it was his choice to move on. When my apartment is my own again I’ll take off my glasses, shrug into warm flannel pajamas, flip on the TV and watch old seventies sitcoms until I get lonely.
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