Keeping Silent

“Time was you were going to change the world, Mom. Now you can’t even change yourself. All you ever say is no. Before I even spit out an idea, you go on about why it’s impossible.”

“What do you mean?” Betty said, annoyed that her daughter, Sally, who lived such a sloppy life, was giving her advice.

“You say if something doesn’t work, don’t keep doing it, and what about you?”

“I’m trying my best to keep my head above water, is that a crime?”

“Take a chance on something new.”

“Fine sentiments.”

Maybe Sally was right, but old habits died hard. She couldn’t stop fretting about the Singhs, even though she had learned the hard way that efforts to change things came to nothing. If she did come to the Singhs’ defense, the landlord would kick her out too. The week before, a plea to fix the toilet resulted in a threat to raise the rent. And she couldn’t afford another cent. She had already survived on Kraft dinners the last week of the month.

It wasn’t as if the Singhs were great neighbors. Their raucous voices shook the walls half the night and their cooking stank worse than the fish plant. Still, if they ended up on the street with the baby and old lady in tow, Betty would have what her daughter dismissed as “one of her guilt trips.”

The night before, for the hundredth time, Doris Singh had accosted her in the hall, pleading that they “stick together.”

“I’ll talk to you tomorrow night,” Betty had promised, just to get Doris out of her hair.

Arriving home exhausted from the long commute, Betty was relieved to find the hall deserted. She yanked out the bulky letters stuffed into her metal mailbox, hoping to find something from Tommie.

Who was she kidding? It wasn’t Christmas. The only items with her name on it were two bills. The rest were the usual assortment of flyers—from the Bay, a credit card company, and the local Safeway. Then tucked underneath, with no postage, Betty recognized Sally’s looping scrawl. She stopped dead on the stairs and ripped the note open.

Hopefully, it wasn’t bad news. Betty didn’t think she could take another crisis—personal or political. She was ground weary by the discontent of protests, picket lines, and years of late-night angry meetings. Darlene, her friend from the basement apartment, had protested about the latest cutbacks, and to what end? The leader was still smiling, his costly white teeth bared, his bony jaw thrust forward, and Darlene still relied on the food bank.

Betty’s ex, Arnold, used to argue that if she had less imagination, she would be better off. Maybe so, but you were what you were. The moment she slowed down, she could hear the needy children—from Vancouver East to Africa. When she visited her mother, she smelled the despair lurking in the corridors where the poor old thing was impounded. However tired she was, late into the night, the desperate faces flashed reruns on her bedroom wall.

At least her kids had jobs; funny enough, now they worried about her. Son Tommie hitchhiked across the country to his father; arrived safely—that was a blessing. Sometimes she missed him like a knife in the chest: missed his raucous music, even his mismatched stinky socks. The occasional hug or “Love ya, Mom,” the grudging thanks for a meal or ten bucks.

Her daughter, Sally, still in the city, worked nights at a dingy bar in a bad part of town. But at least she worked. At times like this, that mattered: a job, any job. And once you had it, keeping it.

“Betty, take it easy. What can you do?” friend Ernie argued. “Come for a drink. Put yourself first for a change.”

“Not tonight, thanks,” she’d said. She wouldn’t admit she was broke again or accept his offer to pay (which he couldn’t afford). Tonight she’d go home, get her stuff in order.

She always scrubbed her arms to the elbows before leaving work. But the company didn’t provide showers and the tap water was cold, so when she moved down the aisle on the bus, people moved away. “Get another job,” her daughter had pleaded, nose wrinkled, slipping away to avoid a hug.

It was easy for kids. They could always find a friend to sponge off, or maybe not. Sally looked thinner every time she saw her but, like her mother, she was too proud to ask for help. Sally’s note was scrawled, and the spelling, well, what could you do? “Droped by. Forgot you work Saturday. Have news. See you tomorrow. I’ll phone. Mines out.”

“Out,” that was putting it nicely. Disconnected was more like it. But a note was welcome. She missed her daughter, missed them all. There was a silence now, a waiting. When the kids were around, there had been a reason to hurry home. She couldn’t think any more why she bothered. The kids insisted she come up with a plan for the future. Her job was uncertain; rumor was the plant would shut down before Christmas. “Do something, Mom.”

Alone in the hall, Betty swooped up a neighbor’s newspaper and stuffed it under her arm. He probably wouldn’t be home for a while. She’d just have a quick read, he’d never know.

There was that man again, front page center, grinning like the Cheshire cat, opening a sports facility—a sports facility, with people living on the street, for God’s sake. Why didn’t someone smack his face?

On Sunday, when Sally came in the door, Betty smelled trouble. There was a crease on her daughter’s brow, a “how to tell Mom” expression. Betty had wondered what was up; “news” was usually bad. Possibilities shot through her mind: Sally fired, kicked out of her flat, or worse.

“You’re not pregnant, are you?” she said as her daughter swept past her down the hall.

“Jesus, Mom, that’s all you ever think about.”

“Accidents happen.”

The girl plopped down on the kitchen chair, whisked some crumbs off the table, caught the dishrag her mother threw, and wiped the plastic cloth in small circles.

“Well?” the older woman asked impatiently. “What’s the news? Is it your job?”

“It’s hardly a job—part time, minimum wage.”

“It’s something.”

“Not enough to live on.”

“You didn’t quit, did you?” Just like Sally, never satisfied.

“I’m going to.”

Betty spun around, knife in hand. What could you do with them? What damn dream did she have now?

“That job’s better than nothing.”

The thin shoulders shrugged. “Not as much as welfare.”

“They won’t give you welfare.”

“That’s it.”

“What’s it?” Betty fought the urge to grab her daughter and shake her.

“We’re leaving. Derek and I, we’re leaving.”

“Leaving what?”

“Here. Going east.”

“To Dad?”

Like a knife slipped under her ribs, then an electric jolt, her last one gone.

“Not to dad. What good is he? To get a job.”

“What job?”

“I don’t know. There has to be something. We can’t just be like you, Mom. We can’t just give up.”

Betty hung frozen, stiff as a housedress on a winter clothesline, and stared out the window. Give up? Is that what they thought? That she’d given up? She hadn’t given up, she’d held on. Held on to what she had; held on to keep them all afloat. That was it then. She was to be abandoned.

“Mom, we want you to come.”

The woman growled. “Of course I won’t come. You’ve got Derek if you stick it out. I’m not tagging along. I have my job.”

“It’s paid work.” They were all glad enough to get the money when they needed it. Even Arnold had borrowed money to get across the country.

The girl slammed her hand down on the table, a hard flesh slap against the plastic, quick and painful. “I knew you’d say that,” she shouted.

“What do you think? I’m going to follow my kid across the country looking for handouts.”

“Jesus, Mom, we’ve got to go. Derek may never get a job. He’ll end living off the food bank. We got to give it a try.”

The woman slowly emptied the dish drainer, lifting each plate, studying it, putting it carefully in the cupboard. She had to admit they had spunk. “I’d go if I were your age,” she sighed, picking up a pile of saucers. “You go.”

A hand shook her skirt. “I know you won’t come now, Mom. But come when you’re laid off. Promise you’ll think about coming then.”

Leave Vancouver? The city where she had been born, where her parents had had the store, and lost it, where her father was buried and her brother Reggie had died.

She’d never been farther east than Manitoba. And only been that far the once for Arnold’s family reunion. Toronto was a big city, and not as friendly as Vancouver.

“Well, Mommy?” the girl pleaded, insistent. Like when she was a kid and wanted more ice cream or to stay up and look at TV. Small requests those, easy to satisfy.

“Well, it’s an idea.”

“What’d you say, Mom?”

Leave her home? Not that she had a house anymore, just this cramped apartment, not that she had anything except the job, but the mountains, the old friends, the park where she’d taken the kids. Tommie feeding the gulls, summer picnics at the beach.

“Mom.” Pushing her, pushing her. “You’ll come.”

Betty’s fingers held tight now, held to the postcard, the photos of smiling faces, even the days splattered with fights. Toronto, she couldn’t even picture it. Just lots of building and gigantic gray cement towers and now her kids fighting for a chance.

“Mom?” Behind her, surrounding her, thin arms entwining her soft, heavy breasts like vines. “You’re not too late for a chance.”

“It’s an idea,” the woman’s voice cracked, her courage struggling to burst phoenixlike from the weight.

~ Melodie Corrigall

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