Hannah’s Bath

Prairie Fire - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - MELA RE­NARD

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

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