Maxi stands at the morning count with her right cheekbone bulging and purpled, red lightning forked in the white of her eye. I ask how it happened and she says she fell down. “Just me or is it slippery around here,” I say, looking down the line at the seven women shivering in front of house #6. “So many girls taking falls these days—do we need to put down some Krazy Glue?” I hear someone snicker and see Toothy Lucy biting back a smirk. When I ask her what’s funny she shrugs, straightens up. Lucy’s six one and built like a Hereford, serving life for putting a chopstick through her girlfriend’s eyeball. I puff up and tell her to stop smiling, tell her I’ve had enough of that rotten brown picket between her lips. The smirk fades and she lowers her chin like she wants to swing. But she doesn’t swing. Never has.
As I walk away Maxi gives me a look like “thank you” and I give her a glance like “don’t get used to it just doing my job.” I head into the house and aside from the reek of rotting fruit there’s nothing amiss. On the way out I tell the girls don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing with those Folgers tins and if I see one more hollowed-out tennis ball in the garbage can.
I buzz through the gate and squat down next to Brenda under the “No Smoking” sign behind the cafeteria. The “No Smoking” sign behind the cafeteria is where we smoke our cigarettes. Brenda, her voice rusty as the rims of her rusty Pontiac, asks how goes the battle. I tell Brenda about the shiner and she says Maxi probably deserved that one.
“It’s the eyes.” Brenda the diagnostician. “Seen it before. She’s got that slur in her eyes.”
I don’t tell her what I think of Maxi’s eyes—tender as crooning violins. I don’t say anything, just nod and finish my cigarette and walk away wondering, not for the first time, whether Brenda has something going on with Lucy.It was 1966 and Judy was eight years old and she’d walked out onto Truro Heights Road. Staggered up the hill and into the cool night air. Staggered away from the house where her father had brought a strange woman. A woman in a red sundress with breasts pushed together, freckles dappled about like fruit flies swarming on a pair of peaches. Judy’d asked what about her mother and her father had looked straight at her and said, “What are you going to do about it?” The freckled woman clucked and leaned back on the couch and Judy fled. Fled up the hill and along the outskirts of the golf club where she stood with the oval moon coming and going as the clouds slid fast and silver. The sweet hum of fresh-cut grass and the snore of crickets ringing through the summer night. She felt herself chilly and alone in that wide empty dark and then there it was, a blue-green disk hovering a hundred metres above the golf course like some lurid cosmic marquee. Little horns here and there and a deep humming along with the clack and shutter of mechanical parts shifting. Then a set of long sharp limbs sprung out from either side, sleek and curved like the legs of a crab. Those limbs came forth swerving and neon and began to feel their way across the cricket-blaring night. I wake up fifty-three and a half times in the night because it’s deadly hot under the covers and my heart rate is up. I climb out of bed again and again to stand in front of the AC with ice and a cold towel and I find myself thinking of Maxi. Whether she might be having trouble sleeping too. I wonder if Toothy Lucy’s going into her room and making her do stuff. Stuff that’s hard to regulate in a progressive federal institution where women live independently in houses. Stuff that maybe some of the women want more and some want less. Stuff maybe some of them did before they got into the facility and some of them didn’t and stuff that maybe some of them learned to like.
In the morning I bring my Earl Grey up to the terrarium and pull a mouse from the canvas bag. I take the white rodent in the twelve-inch tongs and dangle it in front of Sisyphus, watch him eye it sidelong. He doesn’t turn his head as I lower the mouse but he tracks its descent. He stays totally still, tongue prodding the air where the rodent quivers its last. Then he slinks up and hitches and darts—ninety pounds jabbing like a pool cue. Sisyphus bites and snaps that helpless rodent’s neck before dragging it into his coiled length, cradling it there while the warmth seeps away. He takes his time, drinking the blood first and then working the body into his throat where he snaps the bones with his jaw. I stroke him as he eats. Stroke that lovely calico skin and feel, as always, soothed by the power lurking underneath the coolness of those black and clay-green scales. The mouse is so lucky to die there, in the midst of all that power, in the steady clutch of this beautiful serpent.It’s getting close to Christmas which means tennis balls packed full of PCP flying over the walls all night and the girls fully zombified each morning. Basements lined with Folgers tins and the reek of rotten fruit climbing out of the walls and swarms of maggots under every door. The girls trying to claim they’re just composting. We can try to shut it down but in a place like this you have to pick your battles. Ninety-one inmates and eleven serving life and the idea is to give some of the others a chance at recovery, not just stick them in the seg until the walls start to jabber and sing. Which is why I don’t take the pliers to Lucy’s single brown tooth. Which is why I won’t report her until I find a roach or a baggie in her room and send her in to have the medical team locate the contraband she’s more than likely to have suitcased in every available fold and cavity. Which is why I look at a girl like Maxi with sangria sloshing in her cheek and wish there was something more that I could do to help her. Which is why I’d risk my job and my benefits and my bullshit life to sit with Maxi on the front porch and take a sip of that rancid basement moonshine and ask her what she’d like to do when she gets out, what meals she might miss and whether her brother will pick her up and if maybe there’s a beach or a tree or a cat that makes her cry as she lies on her tough single bed and misses it. On the way to work I crack the Buick’s window and light a smoke as I drive past rows of quiet farms, the fields not yet frozen but close. A fierce wind whips through the car, carrying the ocean’s chill. Half an hour in all directions and you can still taste the Atlantic from this town in the middle of the peninsula. The Mi’kmaq named this place “Wagobagitik,” meaning “end of the water’s flow,” and now and then I think of all the flows that have ended here, all the things that have sat stagnant in this place where wind and water come to rest.
After the morning count there’s a dog training session, which is where Maxi asks me why I shave my head. I’m on duty in the room where they train Shediac, the grinning German Shephard pup, to sniff for drugs. I’m thinking about who would win in a cage match between Shediac and Sisyphus when Maxi comes up and asks about the baldness.
“Why do you shave your head?”
“To keep cool.”
She stares back.
“It’s a condition. Anhidrosis. Got no sweat glands.”
Most people I tell look sorry or ask whether I pant but Maxi looks at me soft, as if she knows me better now and she’s thankful for that. I wonder would she ever but of course she wouldn’t. I’m pushing sixty and she’s twenty-one and it wouldn’t make any sense but still I catch myself wondering.The crab legs skittered and shuffled, that great dark beast scampering across the sky. It scuffled through the night until it was directly above her and she knew there was no point to running. She looked up and saw an opening in the front, like a large mouth, and then a long neck lashed out and bit her. A neck that twisted impossibly fast down to where she stood and clamped around her skull. Then another curled out and bit her arm, then her leg, and she felt herself rising up into that gaping black mouth, saw a fleet of tubes laid out beneath a phosphorescent glow and a glint like stainless steel. She did not get much more than a quick glance but she saw all those human faces sticking out from tubes that contained their entire bodies. She remembered her mother, then. Her pale and helpless body in the iron lung. Her mother who’d been diagnosed with polio and who would live her last eight months with her body in that negative pressure chamber, that gigantic full-body prosthetic lung. She remembered talking to her mother in that strange device and finding that she was happy to be there. Happy just to live and breathe. She’d chuckled one day and said there was no better feeling than relief. All of this in a swirl and then darkness as Judy herself entered that fleet of bright light and glinting metal. I’m overseeing art class and Maxi is painting a landscape. Mountains and a fire-blackened forest. Woods a deep, deep green and I imagine them full of revelling witches. She’s mixing green paint into black and I’m sinking into those woods, running wild with those snaggle-nosed witches, pulling a limb out of the fire and clinging fast as it blasts me up out of the canopy and across the smoke-smeared sky.
I tell myself don’t do it don’t do it and then I’m leaning close and whispering “it’s lovely.”
“The painting.” You. You are lovely.
She looks at me, brutal and curious.
“I used to paint, you know. I did this one of Cape Split—the bluffs and the scraggly trees and the ocean. All that pristine nature and then I put a fire hydrant on top of it, at the very edge of the highest cliff.”
“The shapes were very sort of vivid and the colours were strange. I wanted it to be like Alex Colville. Do you know Alex Colville?”
Shaking her head, Maxi rinses her brush in the plastic cafeteria water cup. I can see some people looking over and I know it’s preposterous but still I whisper, “Don’t mind about Lucy. She’s not that tough.”
A silence vast as the sound of a seashell.
“Thanks.” Her face is a jungle of hurt. “But I can look after myself.”
“Of course you can.”
I turn and lap the room, barely stable, sneaking the odd look. She doesn’t pull the brush back out of its glass, just stands there following me with her eyes.It takes Judy a few years to learn she’s not normal. First it’s all breastmilk and singalongs and the unicorn rocking horse her uncle handcrafted. An infancy she remembers as the taste of toast soldiers dipped in soft-boiled eggs. It takes the disruption of that lactic dreamworld to make her understand that she would come to be wretched in the eyes of others. It takes repeated warnings not to run or play too hard. It takes following her neighbour Cedric out into the summer sun and forty-six jubilant chaotic seconds of Coke-can soccer and then watching the skin on her shoulders and forearms wilt into a livid red rash pocked with hives. It takes her still-hale mother whisking her inside saying “Baby baby baby” and placing her between two fans while she runs a cold bath and pulls ice from the cellar. Judy’s father creeping in to look at her in the bath and her mother shouting “Get away from her” and Judy would never know where that sudden rage came from.
“Didn’t know you had a thing for blondes,” Brenda says, lighting her rollie. I’m smoking behind the cafeteria at our 2:30 break, the laziest part of the day, and I’m peeved to be pulled from my line of thought. (Wondering if Sisyphus is hungry, wondering what he would do if I let him loose. Wondering if he’d come back to me.)
“Brenda, you know I like me a nice red-headed Scottish boy with cannonballs between his thighs.”
“Better be careful squeezing up next to that girl. Just saying.”
I snort and take a deep draw. “Jealous?”
Brenda stands up and starts to walk away but then she stops and says, “Make sure you watch yourself. Pretty girl like that—wouldn’t want to get played.”
“Thanks Brenda. Glad you’re looking out for me.”
“Just remember what she’s in here for,” Brenda says.
I spit between my legs and scoff as Brenda walks away but I know she’s right. I know this woman with the shiny scar under her nose is right because I’ve told myself the same thing many times. Reminded myself that Maxi once put a knife to a woman’s throat and took all the amphetamines out of a Shoppers. That she did a stint in seg after she’d padded newspapers and cotton balls under her clothes and set herself on fire. Recall that, despite those gentle blue eyes, there is a danger in her and I do not want to get caught in the undertow, no matter how soft and sweet the surface looks.Next morning there’s an officers’ briefing because someone’s been put in the hospital. Which of course I’m gut-struck and thinking Lucy did something to Maxi and hoping it wasn’t another chopstick-type event but then the warden clacks out with her insect heels and her tasteful cleavage and says that Bradley’s been put in the max unit after assaulting Sheridan, who has been hospitalized due to a burn on her face. Bradley is Maxi and Sheridan is Lucy and I’m not sure, now, why I was certain this scuffle would end the other way.
After the briefing four of us light cigarettes behind the cafeteria and the new nightshift officer tells me that she was first on the scene. Apparently Lucy crept up on Maxi while she was making tea and Maxi flipped her over and stuck her head on the element, burned off an eyebrow and half an ear.
I chuckle. “Too bad she didn’t knock her tooth out.”
Brenda takes a long drag, stares hard into the dirt.How does it end? A childhood without sweat glands. A childhood where her mother is hospitalized with polio and her father is a compulsive liar running a failing tobacco shop and maxing out every new credit card he can use his wife’s name to sign up for. A childhood where her mother is put into an iron lung and when Judy visits she can’t even hold her hand. Where her only friend is a boy in a wheelchair three years younger and when he turns ten he moves to Winnipeg and gradually stops answering her letters. Where she could never join a soccer team or go to the beach and the one time she played catch with her father he threw the ball high up in the air and she raised the glove and believed she could catch it until it cracked into her chin, the pain somehow sharp and dull at once and her father keeling over to cackle and there could not be enough tears in her body to drown that hurt.
It ends with an apartment where she can’t see the floor for all the empty Belmont cases and Deep ’N Delicious cartons, dark cake clinging to plastic walls, sprouting blue beards of mould. It ends with working at a warehouse and a gas station and finally a women’s prison with benefits and salary and everything else that is supposed to be but is not the answer. It ends with improv class and pottery class and painting class and jabbing a butter knife straight through the centre of each one of her Alex Colville wannabes when she finally realizes that there is no class to make her less alone. It ends with a grown woman driving forty-five minutes to sit on a beach at night and look out over the ocean wondering what it would be like to sit there in the daylight and let the sun glance down as the ocean swells saline and grand. Sitting at the beach thinking about the water all around her and if only she could enter it and swim. It ends with a landfill of 6/49 tickets, the same numbers every week and the odd day of wondering whether maybe those numbers are rigged but how could she switch after coming this far. It ends with weekends spent watching Star Trek: The Original Series, muting the volume so she can speak the lines to her pet boa constrictor. It ends with watching internet porn not out of desire but out of curiosity. Wanting to know what people do when they are alone in bedrooms or classrooms or sex dungeons. What people do or what they might want to do and never get a chance. Trying to feel the secret tenderness other people might feel as they watch this same video of two women ferociously unbuttoning their plaid shirts and laying down together on a bed of hay while horses whinny in the background.I listen to the radio on the way to work and there’s a story about two boys in New Brunswick who were killed by an African rock python. A calm female reporter is saying that these brothers were at a sleepover and the neighbour’s forty-five kilogram pet snake got loose, fell from the ceiling, and strangled those two little boys in Iron Man pyjamas. I know this is a terrible tragedy but I also wonder what it would feel like to be taken into that python’s knotted clutch. Certainly, there would be desperation and terror. The snake, too, would be scared. Jailed by humans, the snake would kill from panic, not hunger. But maybe as it closed around your chest there would also be a dark rapture, a primal wonder in the encounter, an intensity of life that knows itself lost. Perhaps there would be something enormous and vital in such a death—dying wildly, flesh against flesh. . Gasping breathless and the heart slowing, slowing, the snakeflesh tightening.The skitter of a tongue tasting the air, brushing an ear. Was it possible to be crushed gently, squeezed closer and closer until the self dissolved, sweet and painless, in a cold-blooded embrace? Over the next six days I see her face only once, in the window of the max unit. She’s standing on the far side of the bubble with an officer nearby as she gets served toast and tea and she looks at me through the small Plexiglas window. She looks at me and we see each other and she doesn’t smile, doesn’t mouth a secret code or scream “Help me.” There is nothing but a long fierce look that reminds me of cheetahs prowling a zoo. Pacing up and down the length of their fence, stepping careful and taut and every muscle and ligament twitching to run. Towards the end, Judy used to go and read to her mother in the hospital. Her mother who lay there in a fleet of white cylinders, who had become a pale head emerging from a full-body compression chamber. Her strange round coffin like some deranged NASA nightmare. Judy’s mother asked her to bring her books and read to her and Judy did as she was asked. She read aloud from books she did not understand—Walt Whitman and Sappho and the Greek myths. She did not understand those words and she feared she would never understand this yellow-eyed woman with searing red hair who had married a sailor whose very saliva seemed to be poison.
Once, she had asked her mother if she was happy, there in the iron lung. Asked if she ever wanted to escape, to creep away at night. Her mother shook her head and said no, said it felt good. Said sometimes it’s nice to lie immobile, sometimes it’s nice to be contained. She said she had always felt she was drifting, drifting and fragile and sick. But now she was held by this iron embrace and she felt safe. Safe and, strangely, loved.The next time I see Maxi she’s on a stretcher with two paramedics walking her across the yard. She lies immobile on the stretcher as the paramedics walk her past all the houses where the inmates stand for the 5 p.m. count. The paramedics hustling across the yard through the waning sunlight and I find myself running after them in full view of Brenda and the inmates and everyone else. I catch up, breathing heavy, and ask them what happened.
“Judy,” the senior paramedic says sternly.
“If you want to help her, leave us alone.”
They’re getting close to the ambulance. The warden has walked out into the yard and she’s wearing a red dress, her breasts pushed together. She and Brenda stand together watching me, their eyes full of laughter. The paramedics load Maxi into the vehicle, her face soft and still. Her face quiet as the moon and the wildness gone and I can’t tell if she’s alive as the paramedics clamp an oxygen mask over her mouth and close the ambulance doors.Judy’s father was killed by a suitcase when she was eighteen and it was the greatest day of her life. He was travelling to Halifax with a woman Judy did not know and the woman had placed her suitcase on the back seat. There was construction on the highway and her father rear-ended a transport truck. It would have been a routine collision but for the suitcase, which flew straight into Charles Walsh’s ginger scalp, knocking it against the steering wheel where the life seeped out of him, the woman screeching from the passenger seat as she watched the blood bubble and spurt, smelled its blunt metallic truth.
Judy learned that day that there is nothing sweeter in life than relief. That there are ecstasies great and small, self-induced and externally given, but none of them compares to the glowing lack of a burden relieved. It was as if her father was a massive, rotten tongue that had been pulled from the mouth of her soul.
She smiled and laughed through the funeral, receiving grimaces from her father’s coworkers and her mother’s estranged sister who had travelled from Montreal. But what did she care? They weren’t there when her mother was lying still and helpless in the iron lung. They weren’t there when she was a little girl who had to sit at home in total shade while her neighbours made snow forts or traipsed to the beach. They would not be there years later as she spent her nights quoting Star Trek dialogue to her pet snake, dining on microwaved Salisbury steak. And so she laughed, then. She laughed into the fetid air that smelled of manure and clay. Laughed so loud her voice carried across the peninsula and drifted into the Atlantic wind.I make it through the count and stagger out behind the cafeteria. There are six or seven officers there and Brenda is telling them what happened. Telling them about the tennis ball they found in her cell. “They don’t know how she got it in there, but the warden thinks it must’ve been an officer.” Brenda looks right at me with her slithering eyes and I know. I know Brenda gave Maxi the drugs that might have killed her and I know I cannot make it through this day.
I slink across the yard and the warden is barking at me but I just mutter something about the anhidrosis and needing a doctor. I flop into the Buick and drive home, the world a warped boomerang. At home I get a wet towel and two bags of ice and sit in front of the AC for a long time but my heart won’t slow down. I climb back in the Buick and drive aimless through the night and find myself at the golf course.
I rev the engine and crash through a security fence, surprised there’s no alarm. No alarm and so I yank the Buick left and take it down a fairway, ripping back and forth to draw tire-black serpents in the grass. I lean into the pedal and the Buick digs in and works up the hill, finally pealing onto the green, where I slash through figure eights until turf splats the windshield. When that grass is totalled I let the Buick rest and sit there listening to the grate of my breath.
There is the familiar lightness and the rash creeping beneath my shirt like a toxic caterpillar and I am looking up at the sky and waiting for it to come down and save me. Looking up at the night sky and the blackness seems to be lowering over the golf course and I am crying out into the night. Shouting “Why, why did you choose me?” and even as I say the words I know it’s because I was precious and unique. Because I was alone and desperate and I had felt the world acutely. Because these strange unseen creatures recognized an affinity in me and the only tormenting mystery is why they did not take me with them when they left.When Judy got home the woman in the red sundress was gone and her father was on the couch with a bottle of something clear. He poured a measure into a small glass and asked if she wanted a sip. She shook her head but he placed the glass under her nose and teetered it. The liquid smelled foul and yet she took a drink and spat it straight onto the laminate floor.
Her father grinned, hoisting her up in his arms, and beamed, “My baby girl!”
She was too old for this and her father had a little trouble lifting her. Her underarms hurt. He put her down and poured himself another drink and asked where she’d gone. She said nowhere and he patted the couch beside him and said tell me. His face was gentle and she thought for a moment maybe everything could be normal. So she told him about that interstellar disk and the fleets of gleaming cylindrical beds.
Her father rose up, all the liquor and laughter drained from his face. He moved to hit her but held back. Instead, he spat on the floor of the house and called her a fool, called her a foolish little brat. Called her a disgrace and said it was all her mother’s fault, said her mother had lied about the pill and he never should have married that invalid. Judy went to her room and listened to him sing to himself and shout at the television and decided she would never again tell anyone about that insectile disk in the sky.I tell the woman at the front desk I’m Maxi’s mother and she asks a few questions and waves me through. She says Maxi has had her stomach pumped and I can go see her but make sure not to wake her because she needs rest.
Brenda stands guarding the door to Maxi’s room and I hear myself hissing, “You did it, didn’t you?” Brenda stares through me for a fat second. Then she raises her index finger like “come here” and opens the door to Maxi’s room with her other hand. Maxi’s eyes flutter open and land on me. She looks lost and stoned but alive. Brenda gently takes my hand and draws me close to the bed and then guides me to sit on the edge of the mattress where she looks at me long and low. “Watch,” she says, and then she stoops over Maxi and kisses her forehead and whispers “Baby” and there’s a cinch in my gut as Maxi raises a delirious hand and runs one finger through Brenda’s coarse greying hair. The room goes white and sour and the rash flares across my legs. I’m looking at Maxi, soft and weak and barely conscious on the bed. The wildness seeped out of her eyes and Brenda leaning over her and kissing her again and I stand up and walk to the window and beg for that crablike blue-green spaceship to appear. But there is nothing but the thick clouds drifting silver and a hooked fang of a moon.I open Sisyphus’ terrarium, take him in my arms. He climbs up my shoulder and slinks around my neck, tickling the air with his tongue. Ninety pounds of red-tailed boa sit cool and heavy on my shoulders and I feel the weight of him tighten as I settle onto my knees. I have brought him out a hundred times and how does he know what I want him to do?
He wends around my chest and tightens there, tightens and squeezes in intervals. I now know what my mother meant when she whispered from the iron lung that it was nice to feel contained. Snake all around me and my lungs shrinking, tightening. Ribs cracking and something ruptures as my stomach and bowels clamp together. Human and snake, organ and flesh, Judy and Maxi, Sisyphus and the iron lung. All of it ceasing to exist in distinction and there is no more heat, no more rash, no more foul fluid or freckled cleavage or endless insatiable desire. Nothing but the coolness of scales, snakeflesh closing in. I whisper “thank you” and Sisyphus turns his head to look at me, lightning streaking through his amber eyes.
—From CNQ 100, Fall 2017