Cal­ico

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Elis­a­beth de Mari­affi

Sands was an old bitch to be­gin with. That was the bare truth of it, and Sara knew it too. Even if she didn’t like to say. You don’t like to say a thing. But some­times, of course, you can’t help it. Can you? Sara had seen her hose a cat once, just to get it out of the yard. Never a word to the neigh­bours. Stood in the door­way and glared if you so much as skimmed the bare park­ing spot in front of her house. She was the kind to clear the spot in win­ter but string up a No Park­ing sign, stretched be­tween two old lawn chairs, so that no one else used it. She didn’t even clear it her­self. Was her nephew who cleared it, or her cousin’s son. “And she with a per­fectly good garage. Sure, I bet she doesn’t even use that spot,” Fan­nie said, calling from the next room. Fan­nie’s hair was piled up on top of her head, and she had one foot propped on a chair, her fo­cus al­most en­tirely on toe pol­ish rather than the house next door. Sara nod­ded. Cau­tious, though. She was stand­ing at the liv­ing-room win­dow, to one side, mostly hid­den in the ruf­fle of the sheer. Watch­ing the ac­tion in the drive­way. Sands. Mrs. Sands, she sup­posed, al­though there was no man on thep­remises. But the old lady wore a ring. Sara had seen it, shim­mer­ing against the steer­ing wheel when her car rum­bled past the house. A Buick. “She’s all alone,” Sara said. Then, louder: “And un­liked. You put your­self at risk when you move through the world like that.” It was not win­ter now. It was July, and a good one — an­other thing you don’t like to say. Who wants to jinx good weather? The ac­tion in Sands’s drive­way was a yard sale. This, by it­self, was un­re­mark­able. But ev­ery week­end? For the whole month? Satur­day and Sun­day, both. And early!

Sara had a shift tend­ing bar at Ras­calz, Thurs­day to Satur­day, the liv­ing-large tip nights, so most of the time she only crawled into bed around five. By seven, the noise of set-up had be­gun. Close to the grave if she didn’t get some sleep soon, she told Fan­nie now. She couldn’t com­plain to Hard­ing, be­cause he didn’t ap­prove of the bar and she didn’t like to fight about it. Sara inched closer to the win­dow. There was a junk mini­van pulled up onto the curb, with a plac­ard in both wind­shields: YARD SALE TO­DAY. This may have been the be-all of the mar­ket­ing plan. Whether the thing was ad­ver­tised on the buy-and-sell sites, Sara didn’t know, but there were never any other signs posted, no box ends, no bris­tol board Sharpied and sta­pled to the hy­dro poles at ei­ther end of the street. The trou­bling part was that Mrs. Sands didn’t seem to be in­volved. Sara hadn’t seen her since the sales had be­gun. Not in the gar­den or float­ing by in the blue Buick, driv­ing out for milk. Not at all. In­stead, a man in Adi­das shorts and an old Ge­orge Street Fes­ti­val T-shirt paced the sale ta­bles, a cash belt strapped to his waist. “It’s the nephew, yeah.” Fan­nie swept in from the kitchen to peer over Sara’s shoul­der. “Lives up Barnes Road. The sketchy end. I used to see him in line for his bagels on Satur­day morn­ings. But now I s’pose he’s here ev­ery Satur­day.” The nephew was the owner of the mini­van. Early thir­ties, Sara thought. Not quite what you’d call a skeet. “But those are his peo­ple,” Fan­nie said. “That’s what you mean: of skeet stock.” She turned from the win­dow, cast­ing about for where she’d left her san­dals. “Fa­mil­iar,” she said, “with the stolen­meat trade.” “I feel like I should ask him about her. Or some­one,” Sara said. “Who would you ask about a thing like this?” “Car’s still there?” Fan­nie said. Sara nod­ded. The garage stood open, the glint of a blue bumper just in­side. “Maybe she’s on a va­ca­tion.” Sara didn’t re­ply but let the cur­tain swing back into place. It brushed her

bangs as it went. She did not think Mrs. Sands was on va­ca­tion. Your re­la­tions don’t sell your be­long­ings when you go away for a few weeks of sun. It was al­most two o’clock: Hard­ing would be home soon. Sara glanced down at her phone for the time and then again to make sure he hadn’t texted. She let Fan­nie out the back way, just in case.

“what do you care?”

Hard­ing had the lap­top open, click­ing away. He’d kicked off his sneak­ers on his way in the door, and they lay there, piled up with the other shoes. Imelda, Fan­nie called him. Sara was in bare feet. She twisted a bit of her T-shirt around a fin­ger and let it go. The T-shirt with a fringe of wrin­kles along the bot­tom edge. “You don’t think it’s strange?” “If she’s dead, she’s dead. Peo­ple die.” On­screen, she could see tiny men on horses, joust­ing around. Not joust­ing. What­ever they did in the game to win or lose or kill each other. Hard­ing said when­ever Sara came around talk­ing, she made him die. He slapped the screen shut, dis­gusted. “Cec says your sis­ter’s in town. Back from Canada. From the u-ni-ver-sity.” Sara nod­ded in a non­com­mit­tal way, ca­sual, then turned quickly to wash a pot that had been left stand­ing in the sink. “Fan­nie? Oh, yeah. Yeah. She’s around.” “But not around here.” Sara said no. he had to go out to Mount Pearl for an eye exam on Mon­day, so Sara drove him, and they sat, after­wards, in the res­tau­rant at the Irv­ing un­der the glass dome, Hard­ing still squint­ing against the light. Sara read him the menu. There was break­fast you could get all day and club sand­wiches and ba­con sand­wiches, with that bar­gain may­on­naise that tastes like Mir­a­cle Whip, she re­minded him, and a hot tur­key and a hot beef with ei­ther one or two slices of bread. Be­sides that, just the usual din­ners: spaghetti goulash, liver and onions. Sup­pers, Sara said, only old peo­ple or­der: “What’ll hap­pen to the liver in­dus­try, when ev­ery­one over six­ty­five is gone?” But think­ing of old peo­ple made her think of old Sands, and she didn’t mean to get back into that. There were three soups on the board: Tur­key veg­etable, fish chow­der, pea. While they were wait­ing for their eggs and ba­con, Sara watched the man in the booth be­hind them. “He’s got a shirt that says Las Ve­gas and a hat that says Las Ve­gas.” She leaned into the jam rack, so the man wouldn’t no­tice her star­ing. “When we ar­rived, he was eat­ing tur­key soup. Not a side bowl, but a proper bowl, a proper bowl of soup. Now he’s just fin­ish­ing, still scrap­ing at it, and the wait­ress comes and gives him a sec­ond bowl of soup.” She nod­ded, more to her­self than any­thing. “It’s pea. Pea with a dumpling. Again, a proper bowl. Two soups. Who or­ders two soups?” Hard­ing had his eyes closed: “Hon­est to fuck.” She straight­ened but kept an eye on the man, with furtive glances any­way. “I’ll tell you what I think,” Sara said, but then Hard­ing opened his eyes and looked at her and she didn’t tell him any more. when they were home, Hard­ing slumped on the couch with his dark glasses on, and she went out to buy their beers on foot, be­cause it meant she could cut through the ceme­tery. There was more than one grave­yard in town, surely, but isn’t there some un­spo­ken law of burial? If the old woman was dead, wouldn’t they have put her in the ground close to home? “She’s not a dog, Sara-bear. They don’t just dig a hole in the back­yard and put a rock with your name on it and a paw print.” Fan­nie picked through the shrub around the graves and popped the cap on a Jockey. Sara toed at a weedy flower with her boot. There were re­ports of a new kind of weed: some­thing that burns you, real burns, the blis­ters hang­ing on for months and flar­ing up when­ever sun­light hits your skin. She sucked her hands up into her sleeves. “Most of these are not what I’d call cur­rent,” Fan­nie said. “Hep Ryan, b. 1921 d. 1970. Min­nie Chafe, An­gels Be­long in Heaven. Min­nie! Imag­ine walk­ing around like that. If I had a girl, what would I call her? Not Min­nie. Mar­garita, maybe.” Sara said if she had a baby girl, she’d al­ways give it a boy’s name, like Les­lie or Se­ton or Ge­orge. So that the world treats it bet­ter. Fan­nie said if she had a girl, she’d call her Li­mon­cella or Barack Obama or Hot Lips Houli­han. “The news­pa­per,” Sara said. “The news­pa­per lists obit­u­ar­ies.” “This seems like a lot of work for some­one you don’t like.” Sara picked up Fan­nie’s beer cap from where it was ly­ing on the ground and slipped it into her pocket. “I just like to be cog­nizant,” she said. “I like to keep track. Who’s dead and who’s still liv­ing.” on wed­nes­day, Hard­ing went out of town for a few hours, and she won­dered if he would hit a moose. On his way home, be­cause it would be twi­light then, the grey time where you hear most about that kind of ac­ci­dent. A moose de­fies your ex­pec­ta­tions. You see pic­tures, or even, the odd time, a real one, maw­ing at the side of the high­way, but you never can know how big they are un­til you hit one with your car. Hit a moose and you only take it out at the knees. It’s less the im­pact than the weight of the thing fall­ing into your wind­shield that kills you. Sara stood at the win­dow, her cell­phone pressed to her ear. The mini­van was there, up on the curb, the en­gine click­ing as it cooled.

A trail led down to where she stood at the base of the stairs: more leaves, and white petals, curled and dry­ing.

“What’s he here on a Wed­nes­day for?” This came out in a whis­per. She didn’t want the nephew to hear her, if he were out­side in the side yard where she couldn’t see him but some­how he could still hear her through the glass. “How long has he been there?” Fan­nie said. “Thir­teen min­utes. Didn’t take any­thing into the house. Hasn’t brought any­thing out. He might be in the back­yard.” “You know, if she was on va­ca­tion, he might be look­ing af­ter things. The gar­den or what­ever.” Fan­nie was wash­ing the dishes as she talked, the clink of cut­lery a steady back­ground dis­trac­tion. “Why don’t you come over here for the night?” she said sud­denly. “Lots of room. Or I could come there. If you’re alone, any­way.” She waited a mo­ment for Sara to re­spond. Then: “I’m not afraid of him, you know.” Sara didn’t say any­thing back. There was a dis­tant thud, like a door slam­ming some­where, and then a true slam, the front door, and the nephew strid­ing back out to the van. The squeal as he worked to get it go­ing. She lay a thumb on the screen’s red cir­cle and hung up.

THE SUN WAS GONE, and Hard­ing still had not come. She wished he would call: it’s bet­ter to know, is he or isn’t he. Be­fore you go do­ing any­thing with your time. Out­side, the grass was cool un­der her feet and rough where the weeds had been mowed down to stubs, and she sud­denly re­mem­bered the burn­ing weed and was sorry she hadn’t put on shoes. But she wanted to be quick. She wanted to be quick and stealthy, sort of in case the nephew came back, which she knew he wouldn’t, so re­ally in case Hard­ing came back. Which he would, even­tu­ally — un­less there had been the moose. She wished for a mo­ment that Fan­nie were there af­ter all, but then she re­canted. The latch on the back gate was brass, with a lit­tle string pul­ley in case you wanted to open it from the other side. In the back­yard, the old lady had a deck that was blue painted and a café set with no um­brella and no cush­ions, just hard me­tal chairs that baked and rusted, de­pend­ing on the sea­son. There was a slid­ing door, but it was locked. At the edge of the house, she caught a gap in the deck­ing and dropped down to her knees to fol­low it, run­ning her fin­gers along the seam. She picked in with her fin­ger­nails to see if the panel would lift. There was a snap from the front porch. Sara froze. The mo­tion sen­sor flick­ered on, vague and squan­dered, a re­ver­ber­a­tion of light, shin­ing wanly through the win­dow at the front and across the smooth floors of the house, then glow­ing at her through the glass of the back door. A glim­mer. Sara waited. There was no noise or car door or any­thing, and she thought, a cat, a rat. A shop­ping bag aban­doned to blow down the street, down to the har­bour, to float away, to choke a sea tur­tle, to wash up some­where far away and start again. She wedged her fin­gers and pulled. A kind of trap door creaked open in the deck, re­veal­ing the ramp to the cel­lar be­low.

A ROOT CEL­LAR: Sands must have had the deck built on top to hide it, the ce­ment crum­bling a lit­tle. At the foot of the ramp, there was a wooden door with a flimsy lock, lead­ing into the house. No work to get in­side. The back base­ment had the same crum­bling floor. An oil fur­nace the size of a church or­gan, deep red in colour, took up a whole cor­ner of the room. There was a sprung mouse­trap near the foot of the stairs with only some dusty bones in it, the lace frame­work of a for­mer mouse. She touched a foot to the bot­tom step and it creaked, and be­tween the slats, she saw some­thing move. “Mrs. Sands?” Sara called the name up the stairs, a safe­guard, but she did not ex­pect are­sponse, and none came. Above her head, a pull chain dan­gled from a bare light­bulb screwed into the ceil­ing. With the light on, she knelt on the steps and peered through.

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