THREE O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING. Two fifty-seven, to be precise, according to the display on my bedside clock. The distinctive ringtone on the phone informs me someone is downstairs, requesting entry. Only one person would come calling at three o’clock on a February morning. Hannah. And if that’s Hannah, this is the coldest night of the year. The coldest night. The hottest night. In seven years she’s never missed. I wait the length of a heartbeat, taking that moment to fortify myself, and then pick up the phone.
“It’s me, can I come up?” I listen for that indefinable something in Hannah’s tone that may offer me a clue to her state of mind. The voice on the other end of the intercom sounds calm. Normal. Cheerful even. Good sign.
“Come on up.” I press the button on the phone that releases the security lock on the outer door of the building. I have a few minutes to pull myself together. Hannah can’t deal with the enclosed space of elevators. I live on the twenty-second floor.
Shaking myself awake, I hurry to the bathroom, splash my face with water, brush my teeth, take a comb to my hair, then pull on the pair of warm, fleecy sweats hanging from the hook on the inside of the door. I check out the amenities in the bathroom. I have fresh towels. I have two—no, three—choices of shampoo. I have a fresh bar of soap. I go to the spare bedroom and retrieve the bathrobe Hannah likes so much from a hanger in the closet. It is floor length and plush. White terrycloth, emblazoned with the logo of the hotel in London I liberated it from a few years ago. It replaces my sweats on the bathroom hook.
I check the kitchen. I have three tins of Hannah’s favorite soup. Chicken noodle. I open two and dump them into a pot with one tin of water, then set the pot on a back burner, turning the temperature setting to min. I have bread and fixings for a couple of sandwiches. Peanut butter and jelly. Shaved ham. Nothing special. Nothing worth hurting anyone over.
I hear her knock on the door. It’s a good knock. Nothing fearful or tentative about it. A confident knock. Like she belongs here. This is a good sign.
Hannah comes in through the door and begins pulling at the woolly multi-coloured scarf wound around her face and throat. She is dressed for the weather. Good sign. Mittens—unmatched, but two mittens. No boots; in their stead a pair of oversized sneakers and several layers of socks.
“Hi there.” She smiles. Her lips are dry and cracked, but her smile is angelic. Nose red, cheeks too. Probably not so much from the cold now as flushed from the effort of climbing twenty-two flights of stairs.
“Hi yourself,” I chirp as I usher her inside. I know not to offer to take her coat or other things until I’ve had a moment or two to gauge her mood. People who live on the street often don’t take kindly to being asked to hand over their possessions.
She toes off her shoes and walks into the living room. I’ve closed the drapes against the view I love so much because, besides the enclosed space of elevators, Hannah also has a problem with heights. And fluorescent lights. And the sound of clocks ticking. And the hum of refrigerators. The list is endless. Remembering suddenly a time when the ring of the telephone sent her fleeing panic-stricken into the hallway, I lean against the doorway of the kitchen so she can’t see me feel around for the phone sitting on the counter, and surreptitiously turn the ringer off.
The coat comes off now. Brick red nylon. Bulky mock-down polyester. It has a hood. It looks warm. She hands it to me with the scarf and the mittens. The scarf is soggy where she’s been breathing through it in the cold air. She seems relaxed. I relax. But not too much.
Hannah plops herself down in the big, overstuffed chair I like to curl up in when I have a good book. “You know what I’d love?” she asks while unzipping a black hoodie with badly frayed cuffs and pulling it off with the bright blue men’s cardigan layered underneath. “I’d love a bath, a nice hot bath.” She stretches and smiles at me,
“Do you have any of that nice smelly stuff, Sis, you know, the kind that turns the water all slippery and soft?” Then with a change of expression so rapid my heart drops to my feet, she adds, “But not bubbles, no bubbles.” Bubbles scare Hannah.
You can do this, I say to myself. To Hannah I say, “I have lots, H. I have vanilla, I have jasmine, I have at least three different blends of berries and something that’s supposed to smell like the ocean on a good day, although all I can ever remember the ocean smelling like, even on a good day, is fish.” I sound cheerful, too cheerful. I’m babbling.
Hannah laughs. Her laughter is like music. I notice that her hair is long again; curls that never did take to being controlled are springing from the red bandanna she’s using as a tie-back.
I drop her coat and other things on a chair where she can easily see them and ask, “How about a bowl of soup first? I have your favourite. I was just heating some up. I can make toast, too, for dipping.”
“Mmmm, sounds good.” She gives me a big-sisterly head-to-toe perusal and says, with a smile, “You look good, Sis. I like your hair that way.” She saws her hand just under her chin at the length where my new bob ends. “It suits you. Much nicer than that braid.”
“Thank you,” I say and duck into the kitchen. I turn the heat up under the soup and pop slices of twelve-grain bread into the toaster. My hands are shaking.
Hannah the beautiful. She is tall, my sister, with an unruly cascade of curls the colour of an August field of wheat and eyes that mirror the band of prairie sky above it. DNA passed down from our father’s people. Vikings. I am small and dark. Varying shades lifted from the heart of Mother Earth. Our mother’s people. Cree.
I busy myself with toast and soup, placemats and napkins. Hannah picks up the TV remote and begins clicking her way through what passes for entertainment in the hours when most people are sleeping.
“Soup’s on, H,” I call. Hannah sits down at the little table and picks up her spoon. She looks down at her hands. They’re grimy, the nails edged with black.
Dropping the spoon, she looks up at me with alarm in her eyes, “I have to...”
“It’s okay, I’ll wait,” I assure her, nodding in the direction of the bathroom down the hall.
After Hannah scrubs her hands raw we eat our soup. We make sparse attempts at conversation. This is going to be a good visit, I keep
repeating to myself, and in the telling allow the knots of tension in my neck and shoulders to ease a little and put themselves on standby. When the bowls and spoons have been rinsed and stacked in the dishwasher I wander down the hall and start to run a bath. I keep the water at a trickle, the temperature good and hot but constantly adjusting to keep the sound of running water as subdued as possible. Hannah’s bath. Three, four times a year she shows up on my doorstep wanting nothing more from me than a bowl of chicken noodle soup and a steamy, scented bath.
“Hey, H.” I pad down the hallway to the living room, bearing a basket filled with pretty bottles and beribboned bags of scented bath salts. “Choose your poison, girl!” I buy old-fashioned bath salts compulsively. I buy them for Hannah, picking up the pretty bags and glass-stoppered apothecary jars every time I run across them in a drugstore or an after-Christmas sidewalk sale. I never use them. Never have. I am more of a shower gel girl myself.
Hannah points to a bag of crystals that look like cherry KoolAid tied with a voluptuous ribbon and bow. Back in the bathroom I toss a couple of generous handfuls into the steaming water and am met with the sweet summer smell of sunshine and berries. When the bathtub is full I close off the taps and gesture the all clear to my sister.
Standing outside the bathroom door I wait until I hear her ease herself down into the steamy, scented water with a contented sigh and ask, fingers crossed, “H, would you like me to run your things through the washer while you’re here?” I steel myself for the sudden stiffening of spine, the defining of will this suggestion has sometimes garnered me in the past, but what I get is a spirited, “Oh, Sis, sweetie, that would be so cool. Thank you.”
I sort through the small pile of clothing: Hannah’s entire wardrobe worn on her back. Thinning black leggings worn under a pair of threadbare brown corduroy pants. Two dresses, one knitted with a high turtleneck collar layered for warmth under a floaty embroidered Indian cotton creation with tiny mirrors stitched into the bodice, six socks and a pair of no-nonsense cotton panties that look surprisingly new. In the pockets I find only a stray button, a used tissue and a piece of carefully wrapped chewing gum. I collect the hoodie and the cardigan from the chair and tap gently on the bathroom door, calling quietly, “Hey, H, you want me to do the stuff in your backpack too?” “Oh, would you? That would be so awesome.”
I empty the backpack. I quietly unzip all the compartments that couldn’t possibly contain articles of clothing. Yes, I am spying,
checking for clues to my sister’s activities. All I find are a couple of prescription bottles with a rattling of pills, a toothbrush and the stub from a government-issued cheque, too worn and crumpled to be read. Dean and a phone number are scrawled across the back. I pocket it.
I let Hannah know I’m leaving, assure her I’ll secure the door behind me and be right back, then haul the basket of clothing down the hall, onto the elevator and down into the building’s twenty-fourhour access laundry room. I make note of the time and calculate: half an hour in the washer, an hour in the dryer. Maybe because it’s so cold I can convince her to stay a little longer. Maybe.
Hannah is sitting at the dining-room table when I return, wrapped in the big fluffy bathrobe and fixing an elastic band to the end of the braid she’s plaited into her hair.
“How about a game of Scrabble, Sis?” she suggests, primping a little. One by one she’s winding tiny escaped tendrils of hair around her baby finger in an effort to control them. Smile bigger, broader, she laughs, “Give me a chance to whoop your smarty-pants lawyer ass!”
I set up the Scrabble game. The board is faded and the pieces have been worn to a luster by three generations of players. There’s no need for a pad or a pencil to tabulate numbers. Hannah will keep score.
Hannah was—no, is—a brilliant mathematician. Hannah is the smart one. Any parent’s pride and joy. Numbers, algorithms and equations all multiply in her head the same unbridled way a virus explodes unchecked when it finds the perfect host medium. She has the potential to be a brilliant theorist. Or, she had, until her first year of post-grad, when something inside her broke.
The doctors spent months trading theories. Depression. Anxiety. A few began to mutter the fearful word schizophrenia. Our mother always said it was like Hannah’s poor little head just couldn’t hold anymore. Our father said nothing.
While Hannah slowly retreated into herself, Mother retreated first into the confines of the house and then into her bed. Father retreated into his office. During her good spells Hannah would look around and, seeing only the fallout wrought by her illness, she would crawl a little bit deeper into herself. One July night she just walked out of the hospital. I didn’t see her again for almost two years. On the day of my high school graduation she showed up on the church steps clutching a clipping torn from the newspaper: a full-colour photo of me in my cap and gown, smiling for the camera.
Hannah would never hurt or harm anyone. In fact, almost everything she’s ever been compelled to do has been driven by an overwhelming sense of generosity. Everything, from tucking our mother’s collection of Lalique crystal figurines into her schoolbag and joyfully passing them out to the people who rode with her everyday on the bus, to the day my father was called out of a meeting and asked to please come get his daughter because, an hour into a university final, she’d erased the rules of conduct posted on the portable blackboard at the front of the classroom and started chalking the answers. That was the day that marked the end of Hannah’s academic career.
The Scrabble game is challenging. Words have always been my bailiwick but Hannah plays for points. She is bursting with impish mirth as, within seconds of my clever construction of the word “cupola” she slaps down three tiles and creates “quiz,” gaining herself a hefty triple-letter, triple-word score. I brew us a pot of spearmint tea to give myself time to think. Slowly stirring a spoon of honey into my cup I try to come up with a word, the perfect word—the coup de grace—but it isn’t coming.
“This is pretty nice, Sis,” Hannah says. “Your place, I mean.” She sweeps her hand in a gesture that takes in the new furniture purchased and put in place since her last visit. Luxurious cordovan red leather sofas and a Turkish carpet, the still-rich colours mellow with use and age, a definite contrast to the simple post-grad someassembly-required I’d been living with for most of the past few years. “You must be doing okay, my baby sister the big-shot lawyer.”
“Hardly big-shot,” I retort, inwardly wincing a little, “My name is still number three from the bottom of the list on the letterhead.” I take advantage of the “g” in her “gravel” to create “ergot,” gaining a few points and the satisfaction of using what my father would have called one of my snooty words.
I am doing well. I specialize in copyright law—safe, but challenging enough to keep me interested. I meet great people. I get invited to the odd awards luncheon or movie premiere. My tax consultant has been telling me it’s far past time I started to think about buying a house, or even, he begs, a condo. I work long and hard, he tells me, I should take a vacation, think about travelling. I’m young.
But, where, I wonder, would I go? If I move, how will Hannah find me? Schizophrenic, homeless sisters can’t be forwarded by simply filling out a card and filing it with Canada Post. For seven years now, ever since our parents pulled up stakes and, using my
father’s ailing heart as justification, removed themselves to Victoria, this twenty-second-floor aerie on the bank of the Assiniboine has been Hannah’s only constant. It’s always here. I’m always here. The second bedroom, fully furnished, the closet empty and hopeful, is always here.
I sometimes think Hannah can read my mind, for suddenly she blurts, “I have an address now, you know. I get cheques.”
“Cool,” I reply, eager to know more, but determined to appear unfazed, unruffled, “That’s awesome. So, where are you living now?”
Hannah arranges and rearranges the letters in front of her thoughtfully before she answers me, “Oh, I don’t really live there, but there’s this guy named Dean—I didn’t tell you last time I was here because he sells drugs—he has this really big house, three floors with five bedrooms up on…well, anyway, it may not be the greatest part of town or even the greatest house, but he lets me use his place as an address so I can get cheques.” Then, quietly, with a warning ring in her voice: “A lot of people do it.”
“Okay.” So this is Dean. Taking a deep breath and straining to keep it light, I ask, “So how much does this really great drug dealer named Dean charge you for the privilege of using his not so great house in its not so great part of town as a bogus residence?”
I get my answer, but there’s an edge in her voice now that tells me she will respond to my question, but this portion of the conversation is over: “Just enough to make it worth his while. He drives me to the Money Mart and he holds the cash I don’t need right away and keeps it safe for me.” Then, looking me directly in the eye, “He’s never cheated me and he’s never tried to sell me anything.” It passes in less than an instant, but I swear I can see icy white sparks glittering around the edges of those vivid blue irises.
“Okay,” I concede. “All right. It’s all cool.” I drop my eyes to the game board, suddenly finding it necessary to give full concentration to my letter tiles.
I take my turn. Hannah takes her turn. The atmosphere is taut now. Hannah begins shifting in her seat, fidgeting with imaginary threads, licking her finger and picking up biscuit crumbs from the surface of the table.
My sister takes a sip of her tea and, eyeing me over the rim of her mug, she asks, “So, you got yourself a boyfriend yet, Sis?”
“No.” I shake my head, eyes still on the board, “No one worth mentioning.” No one since Anthony. Anthony, who actually likes
films with subtitles, and once opened a bottle of wine worth a day’s pay to drink with a midnight dinner of frozen microwave pasta because it was the only bottle in the house and we were celebrating. Anthony, who found it much easier to be loving and sympathetic with the idea of a mentally unbalanced sister who lives in the streets and occasionally comes for a visit than dealing with the reality of being awakened at four o’clock on a hot August morning by a screaming, disoriented and half-dehydrated bag lady banging on the door. He was kind enough about it, though. Others haven’t been.
Pink and golden shades of early dawn begin to glow behind the tightly drawn drapes. Lengthening fingers of light creep out along the ceiling and the carpet. The building is beginning to stir. Footfalls in the hallway and the whine of plumbing are signs the world is coming to life. I can feel the walls of concrete begin to close in on Hannah. She is scratching away at the surface of the game board with singleminded concentration, one fingernail wearing away at the glossy finish, creating a tiny pile of paper dust.
I am exhausted. I don’t have a muscle, bone or sinew that isn’t aching. I feel like a runner the day after a marathon.
“I gotta go, Sis,” Hannah says abruptly. Bolting from the chair, she gathers up her freshly laundered clothing from the sofa and charges for the bathroom. I slip my hand into the pocket of my sweats and fondle the worn piece of paper hidden there.
I know better than to try to make her stay. While she dresses I make three generous sandwiches, two peanut butter and jelly, one piled high with ham and lettuce. I wrap them carefully and tuck them where they are impossible to miss, on top of the articles of clothing I’ve already folded and packed into her backpack, hopeful they will actually be found and eaten. Into various pockets and crannies I’ve tucked five-dollar bills, ten of them. I know Hannah’s just as likely to give them away when she finds them as she is to use them to buy a fast-food burger or a cup of hot coffee. I also know if she does use them to buy that burger or that coffee, there are many who know she’s just as likely to—smilingly, willingly, even joyously—give them away to anyone who asks.
There is no long drawn-out leave taking, no sisterly hugs, no tearful promises to see each other again soon. There’s just a flurry of activity and suddenly I am on one side of the door and Hannah is on the other.p