The heavy smell of hot, wet clothing; winter dressed people in a crowded bus. Lucky she’d got a seat. That would have been too much. Standing for an hour after trudging around all day.
Her feet were tired. She ached right up to her thighs. Never did have strong legs. Born on a farm, born to farm work, ought to have strong legs. Never did. The worst had been when she was a waitress. They really used to ache, especially carrying Rebecca. How long ago that seemed. Rebecca twelve already. “Oh Christ, Rebecca’s ribbons” she thought. “I forgot the ribbons.” Maybe she could get some at the shopping centre where she changed buses. How can 1 think about ribbons. “They have to be dark red to match the other kids’ costumes.” Too much. After she had spent all rainy day wandering around from one cheeky receptionist to another. “Sorry but,” smile “you’re too old, too slow, we’ll phone you, kick in the ass, no.” “No thank you, madam,” “Shall I call you Miss, Mrs or Ms?” “No thank you.” “We’ll be in touch.” Smile. Lovely, fresh laquered smile.
“Move to the back of the bus, please.” The driver was sounding on his last. That’d be a helluva job. They sure tried to cram them in. Lucky she got a seat.
Michel stared at the lady’s neck in front of her. Short blond wisps of hair. So blond it was almost white. A silk scarf around her neck. Rich colours. It looked so soft. The hair was short, so clean. Not quite natural, blond hair like that always seemed unreal. Not fake like a wig but other-wordly.
The woman turned to look out the window into the dark night. Her long silver earrings jangled. Michel was fascinated by the head, the earrings – the face and colouring so unlike her own or those she knew.
Once she had had a lover, no she corrected herself a friend, lover sounded too romantic, a boyfriend who was blond like that. Something in the hair, the fair skin, something ethereal compared to her brown hair. Blonds were weaker though she thought. Some anyhow. The woman put her hand up and adjusted her scarf. She had on coral nail polish. The fingers were long and pale, like a flute player Michel had once seen. She closed her own hands inside the green woolen gloves. They were rough, heavy work hands.
Michel studied the woman, her soft camel hair coat – maybe not real how would she know – but so cosy looking, so warm; the clean line of her cheek as she turned, the composure.
“Probably only a secretary,” her grandmother had said once of another girl they had seen on a bus. “You don’t want to be a secretary,” grandmother had continued in disgust.
“Oh yes,” she thought “yes, dear gone grandmother I want to be a secretary, a cook, a chambermaid. I want to be anything, anywhere, any hours, just to have it, something, a regular pay. “Grandmother why were you so fussy, you were only a farm wife but everyone else was a …. ”
The blond woman moved as if to get up, then settled back in her seat. “I would like to follow her,” Michel thought, “to get off when she does.” It would be wonderful to be invisible. Just for an evening. To see behind the face. I would follow her to her house. To see the kind of place she lives, the walls, the carpets – oh yes, she’d have carpets, plush bright shag carpets. And it would be so orderly and serene. To be invisible and hear what she ways. If I had been a man, that is the sort of woman I would follow. The hair so fine, so golden, the clothing so soft, so pretty. “Bull shit” she thought ” No, if I were a man it would be just like now, I’d follow no one. I’d just sit here. Born to sit.”
The old man on the seat beside her gave Michel a knock. Time to get off, everyone was pushing for the door. Raining. Raining, of course. Vancouver, who called it Lotus Land.
What pervert called it Lotus Land. It was cold and rainy. She was wet to the skin, to the soul. Damp, wet. Oh for a cup of coffee. Steaming coffee.
Good luck, there was the bus. The 94 to Greenpark. She ran across the road to get it, splashing her legs in the cold, dirty puddles. Too late for a seat this time, oh well it was only a few minutes now. As she moved to the back, the bus pulled out. “The ribbons,” she groaned. “I forgot the goddam ribbons.” Oh well she sure wasn’t going back now. She would have had to wait another half hour for the next bus. She could get them tomorrow.
It was still drizzling when Michel went to pick up Sheila at family care. Mrs. Foulkes looked old and tired. Relieved to see Michel at last. “She was fine,” she said “only she needs some more clean clothes, everything is dirty, its in the bag. And her medicine ran out.” “Have a nice evening, then.” “Night.” “Night.”
Michel opened the door to the smell of burnt yuk. She tossed the baby in the highchair and ran to the stove. “It’s just something spilled on the burner,” Rebecca said. “Where are my ribbons? Did ya get my ribbons?”
“I’m sorry but I forgot until I got to the shopping centre and then the bus …”
“I absolutely need them for tomorrow.”
“I told you this morning.”
“Rebecca I don’t want to hear another word about those ribbons or I’ll ribbon you.”
“Gees I told you two weeks ago.”
“So why don’t you go and buy them yourself. You have nothing to do after school.”
“I don’t have any money.”
“Sheila,” Michel cried running to the highchair. Too late. Crash. No serious damage. Michel sighed. Sheila screamed ‘ til she was red in the face. Finally quieted by a cookie. “Thank god for cookies” thought Michel. “They buy some peace.”
The 11 o’clock news. Already. And here she sat. Mesmorized. Everyone in bed. At last. Everyone quiet. Asleep – who knows? Who cares, quiet. “It’s the National.”
Michel stared at the, application form. “If I had a nickle for every damn form I filled out since January,” she thought. ” A dime for every test. A quarter for every phone call. A dollar for every almost interview. A rose for every newspaper ad.” “Number of words per minute?” Should she lie? – a slight exaggeration. “Why do you want to work for the Metropolitan Insurance Company?” the form had asked on the previous page. “Why?” she had thought “that’s rich. Nothing spiritual that’s for sure. Simply because I’m broke, penniless, without a soul, answer L or M. Because I want to work anywhere … even for your lousy company. Even to be a robot for you – the guys who never pay up when some poor shmuck gets themselves smashed to bits or has to have their insides removed. Because sir, I would work for the Devil himself. Work for him with no coffee breaks, no lunch break, nothing.”
She had left that space blank in the end. She would go back to it later. But no escaping the old words per minute question. “Number of words per minute?” She took the pen and carefully wrote 65. She grimaced. “Well, 64 on a good day.”
A bang down the hall. It was Sheila, the little monster. “Sheila” she shrieked – squeezing the table between her white knuckles. “Get back in bed.” Jesus Christ even at 11 o’clock she couldn’t have a moment. Fast patter of feet, crash and silence.
Next page. It went on forever. High school. Why did they care which high school you went to. Why did they care? Some pissy little job, hardly more than UIC, and they expected you to fill out an IQ page report on everything you ever did or knew. She turned the page. “This is the classic,” she groaned. “Any special experience or education you have which makes you suitable for this job.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Later lying in bed. Telling herself to go to sleep. Tomorrow starts early. Breathing exercises. Relax. You can’t do anything until tomorrow. Great theory. Tense up to the toes, relax. Toes were fine. She didn’t have tense toes in the first place.
Was this it then? The last page of an otherwise tedious story. The beginning of the slide. Slide down the greasy pole. The beginning? Hell that was the Pollyana view; it was more like the end.
Three kids. No more UIC. Husband buggered off to Latin America or some other travel folder place. Probably Latin America, that’s all he ever used to talk about. Or maybe just across the town. Who knows. Left with three kids and an unfortunate tendency to want to eat several times a day. And a love of fiend tobacco. Speaking of which. Tense the feet. Relax. Now her head was beginning to buzz. She sat up, turned on the light and looked in the can of tobacco. Enough for three more cigarettes. Small ones. Better give it up before she got to relying on butts. She’d done that the other day. So desperate for a cigarette before the interview at B.C. Tel that she’d picked up a butt from an ashtray. Some affluent character had snuffed out his cigarette before it was half done. She felt terrible when she did it. What if someone had seen her. Sneaky, criminal almost. It’s times like these when you need a cigarette or a cup of coffee, she thought. Times like these. Hands tense. Relax.
Another scene like the one she’d had with son John tonight and she’d go bananas. The way he went on and on, cajoling and whining. What could she do. If she couldn’t pay for classes, she couldn’t and that was that. Aren’t kids supposed to have some reasoning power by 14. What about those big families of 12 who live on a budget of $132 a week and all the kids cheerfully helping out. What a dream. And what the hell good would it do him to play the trombone anyway.
“But I won’t get into the Community Band,” he had wailed from the landing. The last straw, that wail. Trying to induce her to another round in the senseless debate. Debate, nice term. It was a wailing session, that’s all.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
On the bus going into town the next day Michel decided to go over her accounts. Might as well use the time. Two hours of the day spent jogging back and forth between home and the rounds. She took out her little note pad and dug about in the purse for a pen. She pulled out a pencil. Broken. The stuff she had in there. She pulled out a bundle of papers. Old shopping list, coupons – when would she ever get organized enough to use them. And a card from Rebecca. A birthday card. “I wrote the verse myself.” The front was a pastel water colour, a picture of a river, trees and a cow. Well some sort of domestic animals. “I drew that ’cause you liked Grampa’s farm so much,” Rebecca had explained proudly. And that was her idea of the farm. Like everything else a bit romantic but what the hell, she’d learn the truth too soon anyhow.
Rebecca had come to her at the table that morning. Her first reaction had been to say “What now?” Instead she had put her arm around Rebecca’s slim waist and asked her what she wanted.
“I’m sorry about the ribbons,” said the sad, little voice “but I just wanted them.”
“I know, I’m sorry too.”
“Mommy, is daddy coming back?”
“I don’t think so, dear.”
“I guess he isn’t much help anyhow. He was never here anyhow.”
“Rebecca, I’ll get the ribbons tonight. Don’t worry.”
“I don’t want to make you sad, mommy, it’s just that all the kids have them.”
“I know, Rebecca. Everything is going to be just fine.”
“Are you going to start to work soon?”
“Sure, don’t worry. Give us a hug.”
“I’m too’ big for that,” Rebecca said stiffly.
“I’m not, be a pal.”
“Okay, for you, mom.”
For a moment Michel felt the small frame in her arms. S o innocent. So fragile. She wanted to squeeze her – to hold her. To bury her face in that soft hair. Rebecca pulled away.
“Gees, I’m going to be late and I want to meet Janet on the way.”
“Run then, don’t forget your bathing suit.”
“No, see you mom, have a good day.” When she got to the hall she turned around.
“Sheila,” she shrieked. “Mom, Sheila dumped the flower pot on the floor.”
“Figures,” Michel had thought.
Ah a pen. “Government of British Columbia.”
Must have taken it when she was in filling out the application form. Well it worked anyhow. Where to start. Income – too depressing. Start at expenditures. Wonder about those credit companies. Were they all crooked? They preyed on women – on people like her. Desperate people. Friday was rent day, no groceries, the electric bill overdue. She remembered a woman who used to live next door, a Mrs. Miller, borrowed $500; it was real easy so she said at the time. No collateral even. But it got worse and worse and she had a breakdown in the end. Never could pay it off. Of course that was only one case’. They used to phone her. Michel shivered.
“Cold enough for you,” a man called cheerfully from across the aisle.
“Sure is,” she smiled back.
She started to list the bills owing, neatly, making all the numbers round and clear.
“Put it in order,” she thought. “Looks like a child’s writing.”
Maybe I’m going crazy, Maybe I fail those tests. Maybe they’re just being polite and when I leave they make faces and point to their heads. Forty-five. Worked for years. So I’m no great typist. Always on time. Hard worker. Shouldn’t have changed jobs last year. Never would have been laid off at the old job. And now of course she’d take anything going but nothing was going. Nothing.
“This isn’t for you, Mrs. Cook, too basic – better for a younger woman. Salary too low to raise a family on.”
“Never mind,” she had said, smiling, “it’s a start. Better than UIC.” Then she wondered if she’d sounded cheerful enough.
“No, Mrs. Cook, you just wait, something better will, come along. Something more suitable.”
“You can’t scream at them,” she had thought. “Keep it calm.” Six months later, still no job, still no scream. Calm.
And at UIC last time that kid – 19 years old, maybe 20 – who knows they look younger all the time.
“Are we really looking for a job,” he said.
“We?” she thought. He had a job. Only me … I’m looking.
“I want a job,” she said. “I want a job very much.” The last part had been through clenched teeth, had he noticed.
“Well, if you have all the proof you’re still looking you can keep collecting Unemployment Insurance,” he said.
“Is there anything,” she asked. “Can you suggest anything.”
“Sorry, he said glancing at the clock behind her “that’s not my department but there are jobs.” He adjusted his glasses and smiled again “You just have to keep looking, the papers are full of jobs.” He lifted a finger as if to scold. ” You have to keep at it, you know.” Her eyes riveted to the finger. Bony, straight finger. What if she leaned over and snapped it off. Like a chocolate ladyfinger. Snap. That would be an end of that patronizing expression on his punk face. She’d land up in the loony bin afterwards. Headlines LADY SNAPS. OFF BOYS FINGER AT UIC. Terrific. Just the thought made her feel better. You could do something if you were really desperate. We’ll beat you punks, she thought. The man closed his hand and smiled his lips again. “See you again,” glance down “Mrs. Cook.”
It was a day like all the others. Rain part of the afternoon. Did get the ribbons. In Woolworths. Supper was more peaceful than most. And all the time the figures kept grinding over in her mind. If she hadn’t got a job all these months it would only get harder and harder.
“You haven’t worked since,” adjust papers, “since last spring is that correct?”
“Yes, but I’ve been looking. So far no luck.”
“Hm.” Nod. Solicitous smile.
That said it all. “Hm.” Must be something wrong with her. They were sympathetic of course but already wanted her out of the office.
The phone rang. “It’s for me,” John cried, knocking over a chair in an attempt to get to it. ”
“Hey,” he said “yeah, just a minute.” Then “Mommy it’s for you.”
“Sit down, Sheila” Michel said. Was it the Eaton’s account?
“Yes,” she said tentatively into the phone.
“Yes.” Or the Bay’
“You applied for a job in the mail room of Baker Brothers.”
Her mind rushed, couldn’t remember applying at Baker Brothers. It was so far away. Must have.
“Well, we are able to offer you something. A little less than you suggest as your minimum but it will increase over the next few years. The hours are 8: 30 to 5.”
God how could she do it. How could she survive on less than the minimum she quoted.
“Good,” she said, “Good.”
“Would Monday be alright, Mrs. Cook.”
“Alright then, if you come in tomorrow about ten you can fill out all the papers. Then you can get right to work on Monday.”
“Fine. I’ll be there.”
“And on Monday, bring a smock or something some of the work gets dirty and the girls like to wear a smock.”
“Fine,” she said. “Fine.” She hung up.
“What was that mom?”
Suddenly she felt dizzy. Her mind was racing. She had been terrified. She had been so frightened. Was it possible. How would she get there so early. God, was it possible. The rent, the food, the money for carfare. After all that. She hardly saw or heard anything. I t was like a hurricane in her head. No impossible. She ran up the stairs.
“Mommy, what is it?”
She escaped into the bathroom and slammed the door. The storm was pounding against her.
“Mommy, what is it.”
The terror, the terror she had felt. And now was it possible. Monday. She felt a scream building up inside and she began to shake. Sobs choked her stomach, suddenly crying like she would never stop. She crouched on the floor, leaning her head against the door.
Six months. How many days. At last. Now it would be alright. She would work so hard. She would get there early. Whatever they did, whatever happened she would hold onto that job. Her sobs shook the door.
“Mommy,” John wailed from the other side “mommy are you alright? Please don’t cry mommy. I’m sorry about the lessons. Mommy.”
Then Sheila started the three children from the other side banging the door. Michel crawled across to the toilet and took some paper. Still sniffing she dabbed her face.
“It’s alright,” she called out. “Mommy is just being silly. It’s alright.”
She laid her head on the toilet lid and sighed. “Hold on” she kept saying to herself, her hands gripping the lid.