Second Prize, Fiction (Over 18)
They Can’t Understand It
Elaine Bradley is acting weird. It’s only natural for a recent widow to be lost and confused after the death of her mate, but six months after Cliff’s death, Elaine should be getting back to normal. She should spend time with old friends and familiar interests, not run off to Muskoka in pursuit of a half-baked dream.
The community choir members are meeting for an informal rehearsal at the pianist’s home. Naturally, they’re concerned about Elaine’s odd behaviour, because a small town like Treehaven is just like a family.
“Remember her audition?” says the choir director. “Elaine came into the church basement, rain-soaked, after walking from her house out on the highway. Cliff must have had the car. She looked like something the cat dragged in, and when she said she’d like to try out, my heart sank. But she turned out to have a strong contralto voice and was a faithful member up until Cliff’s stroke.”
“She joined the choir because of empty-nest syndrome,” says the pianist. “Both Caitlin and Cliff Junior were away at college at the time.”
“Well, Caitlin’s back in town now, settled down with Kevin and raising a family. They should be Elaine’s interest,” said another choir member. “Doesn’t she babysit for Caitlin?”
“She did, before Cliff’s stroke,” says the retired teacher, “but then Caitlin and Kevin put the younger lad in day care and the older one in the after-school program. I imagined Elaine would take over their care again, to fill her time, but instead, she’s off to the races, or rather, off to a painters’ workshop.”
“Does she actually paint?” queries the lead alto.
The retired teacher rolls her eyes. “She never mentioned it.”
“She took art when we were in high school,” says the choir director. “She had a watercolour chosen for the district student exhibition, but she was disqualified when she quit school.”
During the year between Cliff’s stroke and his death, Elaine looked perpetually exhausted. Caring for him was draining, physically and psychologically, especially when he was angry. He’d never been easy to get along with; he flared up quickly and sometimes hit her, but she never told anybody. Caitlin rarely came to visit after his stroke because his incoherent outbursts scared the little boys.
At night when Cliff was asleep, Elaine crept out of the spare room, tiptoed past the master bedroom so as not to wake him, and went to the living room to watch instructional DVDs on painting from the regional library. When his caregivers were with him during the day, she went to the basement and sorted out the utility room. One day when he was away at occupational therapy, the Salvation Army from Hope Falls, twenty-five miles away, came and took the old sports and exercise equipment.
After Cliff’s death, Elaine painted the room a creamy white. She set up Caitlin’s easel from high school days and put out the art supplies she’d ordered through the internet. The walls of her studio are now bright with her first landscapes. No one knows she’s painting, not even Caitlin, who is busy with her family, her work, and with something new, as well.
Having rehearsed some hymns that they often sing at funerals, the community choir members have settled in to drink coffee and discuss Elaine in depth.
“It’s a shame she’s wasting the money Cliff left her on painters’ retreats,” the pianist remarks. “Who does she think she is – Robert Bateman?”
“Maybe, secretly, she has been painting,” the teacher muses.
“She’s had paint spots on her hands,” says the lead alto. “When I asked if she’d been painting, she said yes, but I assumed she meant the walls.”
“Funny she never mentioned this interest in art,” says the retired nurse.
“Well, she has always been secretive,” says the former teacher. “Remember in high school how shocked we girls were to learn that she was pregnant. We didn’t even know she had a boyfriend, yet she had this secret affair going on with one of the Idlewild boys.”
“Idlewild. Aptly named,” the nurse remarks. They all chuckle.
“Affair is too dignified a word for it,” says the pianist. “She may have been in love, but he was just after one thing. When she broke the news he lit out for Alberta. What a scandal it was then! Nowadays, no one would be shocked, but then – the town was buzzing!”
“Well, Caitlin was an adorable baby and Elaine was devoted to her,” says the alto. “Her parents grudgingly made room for them, and I was glad when Cliff Bradley took pity on her and decided they could make a go of things together. And when they had Cliff Junior, I think Cliff treated both children equally. He paid Caitlin’s way through college to be a dental technician.”
“Elaine was good wife and a conscientious caregiver to him at the end,” says the choir director. “The poor thing has been under a strain. Maybe she can paint. Now, ladies, we should run through the new hymn just once more before we go. Do we all have the words for God’s in His Heaven; All’s Right with the World?”
“Amazing! The six of us have painted the same scene, yet no two pictures are alike!”
Elaine watches the woman gesture dramatically at the canvases against the porch rail. After a day of painting en plein air, the painters are sitting on the veranda of a Muskoka lodge, sipping drinks and inhaling the kitchen aromas that promise a tasty evening meal.
Elaine leans back in a wicker chair and sips her wine. Funny, wherever you go, you meet the same types of people. The expressive woman who has just stated the obvious reminds her of some choir members back in Treehaven. Still, she enjoys listening to the other workshop participants, all women except for the instructor and one man, Mel. They talk of courses they’ve taken, vernissages and art fairs. Elaine keeps silent, knowing better than to mention instructional DVDs.
Each painting is unique. The same pines appear in each, but Elaine’s are wind-whipped. Others have fluffy lamb clouds, but her darker sky hints of a storm. Some focus on field flowers; she painted stark cat-tails slanted in the wind.
“You’ve really created a mood,” says Mel. With his white hair and moustache he reminds her of the late Richard Farnsworth in Anne of Green Gables.
She smiles. “Thank you.”
In his picture, the pines have reddish trunks, like arbutus trees, and the grass has a cobalt tinge. They’re a bit off. Did he do this intentionally or is he colour-blind?
At breakfast he praised the pancakes – almost as good as his late wife made. Her art and his writing were what they’d had instead of kids, and she’d been a far better painter than he is. After she passed on, her brushes and paints were just lying there making him sad, so he began painting in memory of her. Elaine was touched by his story, but let the bubbly woman praise him for honouring his late wife in this way.
Elaine likes the companionship and privacy of outdoor painting. The painters situate themselves some distance apart to work, while the instructor circulates, giving individual attention. He’s about the age of her son. She was stunned when he compared her “lonely” painting to one of Van Gogh’s. With his suggestions, she enhanced the atmosphere with shadows and is pleased with the result.
In the dining room, she listens as one artist tells about her assembly-line approach to churning out minimalist semi-abstract leaf pictures that sell like hot cakes in the city where she lives. Others speak of upcoming courses that Elaine would take if she lived in an urban centre. The others have come north to Muskoka; she has come south.
The woman beside her attempts to draw her out, so Elaine mentions that she is a recent widow new to painting. The woman praises her for leaving her comfort zone .
“I envy you having had a love that lasted so long,” she says. “I’m divorced.”
In the middle of the night, Elaine puts on her jeans and shirt and tiptoes along the corridor to the great room, and out to the porch. There is no light but the moon and stars. On the veranda she finds a wicker chair and sinks into it.
If only she had a confidante. She has come to this retreat to escape her life, which is in ruins. Jake Idlewild ruined her life when she was a girl, and he’s done it again.
Caitlin was five when Elaine was expecting Cliff Junior, and was fascinated to learn that a baby had started out like a seed and was sleeping and growing inside her mother.
“How did it get there?” she asked.
Elaine said that Daddy put it there.
“Oh. Then I was the first seed that Daddy planted in your belly,” Caitlin remarked.
Elaine said no, that another daddy had done that. He hadn’t been ready to help care for a baby, so he’d moved away, and weren’t they lucky that Daddy Cliff was the father of their family. Elaine risked having Caitlin repeat this conversation at kindergarten “Show and Tell. On the other hand, she wanted Caitlin to know the truth before she heard it from someone else in Treehaven.
Over the years, Caitlin had asked for more information, off and on about her biological father.
“We were just a couple of kids fooling around,” Elaine told her when she was a teenager. “If you want to look him up sometime, do, but don’t get your hopes up, because he hasn’t contacted me in all these years.”
Caitlin said she didn’t particularly want to know Jake Idlewild; she was happy with the family she had. How thankful Elaine was to hear that! Putting up with Cliff’s abuse was worth it.
It had been Caitlin’s idea that Elaine join the community choir, to have something to do other than cooking and cleaning for Cliff, who found fault with everything she did. For years, they led parallel lives. She loved her son, Cliff Junior, but saw his sense of entitlement; his love for her and Cliff depended on what they gave him. After college he was hired by a computer company with a branch in Australia, and he lives there now. His Facebook page has photos of him surfing and partying. He came home, was appalled by Cliff’s condition, cut his visit short and flew back to the land where the Southern Cross shines at night.
Elaine stares at the stars overhead. Then she notices a moving red dot somewhere on the veranda. She shivers, but then a whiff of tobacco smoke makes her realize that it’s the tip of someone’s cigarette.
“Who’s there?” she asks softly.
“Elaine? It’s Mel.”
“Hello. We must be the night owls of the group.”
“Sleepless in Muskoka,” he quips. “May I join you?”
He pads to her end of the veranda.
“Bad dreams?” he asks.
“Me, too.” He extinguishes his cigarette. “I’ve given up smoking, mostly, but tonight when I couldn’t sleep I stole from the cook’s stash in the kitchen.”
She laughs. “Have you tried the new e-cigarettes?”
“No, because I don’t really smoke any more. Have you tried them?”
“No. I don’t smoke but I know someone who uses them.”
Jake Idlewild uses e-cigarettes. He mentioned them at his so-called “family dinner” in the private dining room of the best restaurant in Hope Falls.
A month after Cliff’s death, Caitlin dropped in on Elaine after work and said she needed to talk. She had contacted her biological father. She had traced his whereabouts a year ago through the internet, but hadn’t liked to contact him, partly out of loyalty to Cliff, who had provided for her and was so ill, and also because Elaine had enough to put up with. Recently, though, she’d written to him at Idlewild Enterprises in Calgary, enclosing pictures of herself, Kevin and the boys. The other night he phoned her and they talked for two hours. He was delighted to hear from her, even said it was an answer to a prayer.
Jake had been married twice and divorced each time. He’d tried to be a good stepfather, but the children, now adults, had drawn away from him after the divorces. Older now, he often wished for someone to share his good fortune.
He was flying East to meet Caitlin and her family and to beg Elaine’s forgiveness for leaving her in the lurch years earlier. He wanted to make amends.
“Please join us for the family dinner he’s planning,” Caitlin coaxed. “It means so much to me.”
What could Elaine say but “Yes”?
Jake has become a white-haired well-fed man who bears little resemblance to the insistent youth with whom she’d played in the dark. That night he wore a winning smile, but Elaine was immune, angry about this fresh hell being visited upon her. The only thing that made the situation bearable was Caitlin’s joy in meeting him.
“What a stupid mother I’ve been!” Elaine thought. All these years Caitlin had been a good little actress, enduring Cliff’s emotional distance, bad temper and preference for his son as if she hadn’t noticed, or minded. For years she’d probably been dreaming of rescue by a faraway good father.
When Jake apologized to Elaine for not “manning up”, she made herself say all the right things. She assured him that everything had turned out for the best, that it had all happened long ago, and that she, too, bore responsibility: “After all, it takes two to tango. And we created something marvelous – Caitlin.”
When Caitlin hugged her, she patted her daughter’s back and blinked away tears.
Jake wants to provide for his daughter – at long last. He has paid off the kids’ mortgage and bought them a new SUV. He bought a winterized cottage on Hope Lake, perfect for year-round family recreation, for Caitlin’s family and for himself when he comes East. In fact, he intends to retire there in a year or to, to be close to Caitlin and her family.
Redundant. Obsolete. Irrelevant. That’s how Elaine feels. Sure, Caitlin loves her, but she’s enthralled with Jake. Elaine’s gifts will seem worthless compared to what Jake and his money can provide.
She can imagine her choir friends saying, “But they still need your special love!”, and of course Caitlin and her family still have that. But the little boys are already growing away from Elaine. They like gadgetry, superheroes and sport. As they get older they’ll have less and less to do with her.
Home alone after the “family dinner”, she wept for a while, then checked her email, where she found an advertisement for an artist’s retreat in Muskoka. She read it slowly, then got her credit card.
Beside her, on the veranda, Mel clears his throat.
“Actually, it isn’t the need for a cigarette that keeps me awake,” he is saying. “It’s a memory.”
“Of your wife and her painting?”
“You must miss her,” Elaine says gently.
“Yes, and as well, this artists’ retreat reminded me of something mean I did to her.”
“Taking over her painting materials? But she would have wanted you to find some way to go on.”
“No. I did something selfish. We lived in Gananoque, a St. Lawrence River town with a lot of summer tourism. Helen wanted to renovate our large sunporch into a gallery for her work. Well, I didn’t want strangers coming to the house or having to tend a shop all summer, so I threw cold water on the project. I mentioned building permits, vending permits – all the red tape. I made it seem such a big deal that she abandoned the idea. Actually, it wouldn’t have been that complicated. I stood in her way and I can’t make it right.”
“Did you argue about it?” Elaine asks.
“No. She just let the idea go.”
“Maybe she saw the danger of it taking all your time together,” Elaine remarks.
“Maybe. I shouldn’t be telling you this. We’ve only just met.”
She smiles. “On retreats, people share things they can’t talk about back home. We probably won’t see each other again after this week, so there’s no harm done. Wait til you hear what brought me here. It wasn’t just the love of painting.”
The community choir can’t get over it. Elaine has left Treehaven to live with a man she hardly knows. She met him at that painters’ workshop in Muskoka. She has deserted poor Caitlin and her family, rented out her house, packed up and gone off to Gananoque. She’ll be sorry. Six months is the longest it will last. And if she comes back to Treehaven with her tail between her legs and thinks the choir will take her back, she can think again.
When Elaine wakes at night beside Mel she melts with happiness.
The last full day of the retreat, she was on a knoll, painting, when she heard the grass rustling.
“The instructor,” she thought, but it was Mel. He said hello, waited while she put the last touches on her watercolour, then came over and seized her hand.
“We can’t say goodbye tomorrow,” he blurted. “I want to see you again – and again, and again. I want to get to know you. I believe we could have things to talk about forever and ever.”
Elaine often talks on Skype with Caitlin and her family. They can well afford to visit at any time, and Mel enjoys having them in his big house with the river view. The choir? Elaine never thinks of it, though as she paints, she sings.
Ruth Latta lives in Ottawa. She has published three collections of short stories: A Wild Streak; Save the Last Dance
for Me; and Winter Moon, which won the 2011 “Northern Lit” Award from Ontario Library Services North. For more information about these collections and her other books, which include novels and non-fiction, visit her blog at http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com