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The poker game had been going on for years. Nobody had the slightest idea how many zillions of dollars had been slid across the table top in ones, twos, fives, tens, twenties. The supper stuff was no sooner cleaned up and put away, than the first faded denim butt was sliding onto the chrome-legged chair, the first calloused hands were reaching for the Copenhagen can or rolling a smoke, patiently waiting for the other players to arrive. Some sipped beer or wine, some nipped at pocket flasks, one or two walked outside to inhale some Indica, and a few stuck to tea or coffee. Faces changed, voices changed, but the game just went on, as endless as the tide.
Mary ignored the game for the first ten months. She had clear memories of money lost and money won at oilcloth-covered tables; the winning was great, the losing wasn't. She told herself time and time again she had to keep her nose clean this time, she had Rowan to consider, she'd made enough mistakes with Carol, no need to make the same mistakes this go-round.
It was boredom did it. Boredom and loneliness. She tried to make friends with the few other women in camp, but it didn't work out for her, or for them. They were married and she wasn't. Period. They were pleasant enough, but not one of them was able to believe every single woman in the world didn't have her sights set on stealing their particular old man. And by the time Mary was finished working, they were well into their own family routines, bath time, story time, bedtime for the kids, then an hour or so of conversation or silence with the better half before going to bed to rest up for another day of the same. The afternoon break Mary welcomed gratefully hit at just the time the other women were most occupied with domestic concerns. And as much as Mary loved Rowan, there are built-in limits to the kind of conversation you can have with a kid, however much you love her.
And once that kid has gone to bed, there you are, sitting in a float house, too keyed up to go to sleep, staring at a pile of novels, feeling as if you will screech if you have to read one more chapter of a story about people whose lives have nothing to do with your own. And yes, there was a satellite dish, but what good does that do when everything that comes from the television assumes that anything interesting, entertaining or worthwhile happens in cities thousands of miles from what you know as reality?
So, finally, one night, Mary turned up with some money in her pocket, her can of tobacco and her packet of Zig Zag blue papers, and sat in on the game. just an hour or two, she told herself, just enough to unwind a bit and pass some time.
It didn't help her reputation, what was left of it, and it didn't do anything at all to weld a connection between her and the other women in camp. It unwound her, sure, and it passed time, sure, but it did more than either of those things. And she knew it.
She cared, at first. She didn't let anyone know she cared, but she cared. She stopped caring the night all hell bust loose down the far end of the float houses.
Nobody on the coast will openly admit to being racist. There's always a supposedly good reason for hating whoever the latest underdog is. After all, everyone knows Eyeties will talk about you behind your back in that jabber they call a language, and everyone knows Polacks might be good workers but can't learn anything new. There's no denying Scandihoovians are just about the best loggers and finest neighbours a person could want but they are clannish and they do stick together something awful. Jews, well, they don't work in the bush, they can't survive out of cities, but they do well there because they stick together even more than the Scandihoovians do and every Jew child, it's a well-known fact, gets three chances to go into business for her-or-himself. They get financed by the other Jews and if they go tits-up the first time, well, so what, they get financed again, and if they go tits-up the second time, well, maybe they should be sent off to business administration school, and if they go tits-up the third time, that's it, go to work for someone else. But the rug-riders, well, what does anyone know about them? They stick together like cat shit to a new wool blanket, you have to take them to one side and explain to them about socks or they'll walk around in a four-hundred-dollar suit, white shirt, tie, and eighty-dollar leather oxfords with their bare ankles poking out for all the world to see. They eat funny, and there's no denying that, and nobody in their right mind would move into a house after those people have lived in it because the reek of their cooking gets right into the walls and you can't get rid of it no matter what you do. The men will smile at you and all the time be planning how to screw you out of something and the buggers are going to ruin insurance rates because once they found out about insurance they all started setting their houses on fire and driving their new cars for two and a half years then arranging with a friend to have the car stolen and wrecked so they can use the settlement money to buy another new one. They go to the feed store and buy a big sack of crushed corn meal and another sack of ground buckwheat, and they live on pancakes with bits of goat meat wrapped inside. They don't even know that stuff from the feed store is full of chemicals and only good for animals, no, and there's no telling them, either. The men are all chasing white women but don't let a white man look at one of their women or the swords and knives'll come out and every time you pick up the paper there's another one of them arrested for immigration violations, sneaking in on someone else's identification or something. And likely as not you'll also read about them fighting and ripping each other's guts out with punji sticks for Chrissakes. Want to know how many of them live in a house, well count the windows and multiply by thirty-two and that'll give you some idea. And no use trying to be friends with them because they don't know what friendship is and anyway behind all that smiling and nodding the buggers have contempt for everything about this country except the money they can make. But racism? Oh hell, that's what they have down in the States, and it's a cryin' shame when you think about it, especially the way they treat their blacks, because how many people do you know who could sing and dance the way all the black people can. Racism? Well no, it isn't anything like that at all, it's just tellin' the truth the way it is.
Two houses side-by-each had rug-rider families living in them. The kids took their correspondence courses with the other kids and except for some vocabulary problems, things worked out fine. The men worked hard, the three women helped each other and the babies were cute as bug's ears. But what's going on there, anyway, two houses, four men, three women, and kids back and forth between the places until you don't know which belongs to which and do you figure they share that third woman, or what?
Mary had just won forty-three dollars when the uproar started. She was never sure exactly what happened, or in what order. One minute she was picking money off the oilcloth and the next everyone was yelling and shouting. She followed the crowd out onto the floats, and stood, suddenly sick to her stomach, staring at the bright orange and red glare.
She ran, then. Terrified the flames would race along the cedar shingled roofs, and set her own float shack afire with Smoocherooni still inside, she just started pumping her arms and legs, plowing through the shocked crowd, feet hammering on the planking, down the float to the front door, through the door and into the back bedroom where Rowan was just starting to wake up. Mary grabbed Rowan by the arms, pulled her upright, and raced back out the door with her, not even waiting long enough for the kid to shove her feet into sneakers or slippers.
By then men were running with the canvas and rubber hose, someone was starting up the generator, someone else plugging in the pump, and miraculously, everyone seemed to know exactly what to do.
Rowan broke loose and raced toward the fire screeching wildly, and vanished into the thick smoke. Mary screamed until she thought her throat would burst, and then Rowan was coming out of the smoke, hauling two little kids behind her, pushing them off the float into the chuck and dragging them back out again, dripping wet. Mary raced forward to grab Rowan and instead found herself hoisting the four-year-olds on her hips and thundering away from the flames. The little kids just stared, eyes as big as saucers, not even crying, shaking with cold and shock.
One of the women lived an hour or more, her skin charred, her hair gone, the melted material of her sari embedded in the blisters and raw open cracks of her flesh. They did what they could but all the experts in the world couldn't have saved her. The others fried. Men, women, kids, the whole lot of them except for the two Rowan had managed to get to safety.
The seaplane arrived two hours past dawn and the RCMP walked around taking pictures and writing notes. An hour later, the seaplane took off again, and the two stunned and wide-eyed kids flew off in their pyjamas.
"What's going to happen to them?" Rowan asked.
"Either they'll go to live with relatives," Mary answered, "or they'll go to foster homes, I guess."
"But not here, huh? Not here where they know everybody."
"Nobody here knows everybody, honey. We're all next best to strangers to each other. Besides ... they aren't our kind of people."
"You told me we were all the same." Rowan's eyes filled with tears. "You said beauty was only skin deep and after that we were all just meat, bones, and guts."
"That's true," Mary said firmly, "but there are different languages and ways of doing things, all the same."
Rowan nodded, even though she didn't understand or agree. She walked over to the little rowboat, got in and pulled on the oars, her back to the charred ruin of what had been two adjacent float houses. The smell lingered on the breeze, acrid and stinging, but that wasn't what made the tears slide from her eyes and down her face. Someone ought to have said, "Oh, they'll be fine with us, we'll just set up another bed, what's one or two more, and at least they know people." But nobody had. And somehow, though she didn't understand why, she hadn't dared ask Mary to be the one to make the offer. She didn't want to be disappointed when Mary said no.
She wakened that night and lay in the darkness. knowing Mary was just a loud yell away, knowing there was nothing lurking in the closet, nothing crouched under the bed, nothing waiting in the comer of the room. She knew all she had to do was jump out of bed, run across the floor to the front door and along the mist-slick float to where Mary was sitting in on the card game. She knew she didn't even really have to run at all, just start hollering. But it felt lonely, all the same. It felt as if in all the world there was just her and her grandmother. And that didn't feel right. It seemed to her a body ought to know there were lots of others ready to step up and put an arm around a person's shoulders, smile down and say It's okay, Sweetheart. She wondered if there had ever been a time or place when things were done that way. She rolled onto her side, staring at the darker blur of the wall. She wanted to cry, but it seemed a silly waste of time if there was nobody to hear or care. Yes, she could call out and Mary would come, and then what? What words would explain the overwhelming sense of loss and loneliness? After all, what had she lost, it wasn't her house burned, it wasn't her people burned, it wasn't her flying off to a big black scary future, why did the memory of the departing float plane fill her with such terror and such hollow grief?
Mary couldn't have explained to anybody, not even herself, what it was had changed for her after the fire. Whatever it was, she gave up wasting any time at all worrying what people might think of her. If the wives wanted to think she was humpin' herself to a fare-thee-well with all the single guys, let'em. About time they thought about something, and if they were talking about her, they weren't talking about her friends. And if she had a drink or two, or three or four during the poker session, what harm was she doing anybody, Christ almighty, you're a long time dead and you don't laugh once rigor mortis has set in.
They didn't live full-time in the float camp. When the bush was closed for fire season, most of them gypsied off, taking the freight ferry out and catching a bus to wherever they could rent or lease a car, van or motor home and drive off to visit relatives or go on holiday like normal people. Rowan and Mary usually checked in to a motel or auto court and sacked out there, catching up on movies and shopping for new jeans and new high-top Nike basketball sneakers. When the rains started and it was safe to go back into the bush, they did the trip in reverse.
During snow shutdown, they headed out again, correspondence course tucked in a box, and they celebrated more than one Christmas in a motel unit, with a chicken instead of a turkey, because, after all, there were only the two of them and anyway the oven was too small for a big bird.
They lived in camps in Frohlander Bay, in Clamshell Bay, and at Tarbox Point, they lived in Mid-Point and Galleon and Downrigger, they lived in Esperance and in Calm Harbour and once they lived two miles down the beach from where someone at some time had set up an enormous still and made rotgut to smuggle below the forty-ninth during prohibition. Rowan couldn't believe the size of the metal vats or the miles of copper piping coiled up like vertigris'ed guts* It took no time at 11 for the bunkhouse boys to figure out a way to salvage various bits and pieces and set up their own smaller version, then swipe a twentypound sack of rice, a big package of raisins and a ten-pound sack of sugar from the cookhouse. Actually, Rowan wondered if any of it had really been swiped or if Mary was in on the whole thing from the start. Certainly she sipped her share of the rocket fuel once it started to drip from the condenser. "Oh, it's well aged," she said solemnly, "I bet it's at least four hours old. A body has to do something to poison the intestinal parasites."
Rowan found her own schedules and routines. If she was lonely she didn't know it, she'd spent most of her life not knowing there was any other way to be, and you don't miss what you never knew. When the rain pelted down and the wind howled like a bitch in heat she just lost herself in the correspondence courses and did lesson after lesson for lack of any other options. When the weather was kind, the lessons sat in the cardboard box.
Mary didn't push one way or the other. "It's your life, kiddo," she said, lighting another cigarette. "If you don't give a shit, there aren't many others who will. One way or the other, sooner or later, you've gotta get'ern done."
"I know." Rowan sandpapered the handgrips of her oars carefully, the fine sawdust landing on a piece of newspaper on the floor. "I've got them done. If I mail 'em all off at the same time, they're apt to say something in Victoria. So I just mail off a few every week."
"But they're done?"
"Why not mail'ern off and get new ones?"
"Then I'd have to do them, too," Rowan winked. "And they'd start to expect something."
The boss saw her rowing back with a gunnysack of cod and went to Mary to suggest the kid ought to be doing more than lallygagging around in a boat.
"She should either go to school or start working," he decided.
"Yeah?" Mary put down her rolling pin, sat on a chair, stuck a cigarette in her mouth and lit it. "I'm not sendin' her off to boarding school, and she's not workin' full time in this cook shack with me. What do you care?"
"She could get into trouble," he decided.
"You could get into trouble yourself," Mary cautioned. "Doesn't pay to poke your nose into the cook's business."
"A kid like that, with time on her hands and a bunkhouse fulla young randy guys, that's like gas and matches."
"Butt out," Mary said coldly. "She ain't got time on her hands, what she's got is callouses from rowin' out to the cod pools and back. And them randy young single guys ain't animals from another planet, they're all somebody else's kids."
"Easy, easy," he said, backing toward the door and wishing he'd never even come into the cook shack. "I was only thinkin'. . . "
"Well, don't." She stubbed out her smoke, stood up and got ready to go back to her pie crust. "You ain't got enough practice thinkin' to do a good job of 'er."
That fire season, Rowan met a guy named Jerry Pritchard at the Collieries Dam Park, where she went most afternoons to swim and to lie in the sun, neither asleep nor awake but comfortably somewhere between the two. At first they just talked, then they pooled their lunches and shared sandwiches and pop.
"You like to go to the show tonight?" he asked.
"Sure," she said easily, "what's on?"
"I don't know," he laughed, his face pink. "I didn't even think about going until I started thinkin' about maybe going with you."
Mary just stared, then finally nodded, and Rowan hit the bathroom. She filled the tub and had a good soak, then a scrub. She washed her hair, put on her best jeans and was just finished brushing out her hair when Jerry arrived, as spiffed in his own way as Rowan was in hers. Mary watched them leave, then went to the cupboard under the sink where she kept the Ajax, the sudsy ammonia, the dish detergent and the big bottle of Gilbey's gin.
"Dear God," she said aloud, "this is me. Please don't let it start all over again, I didn't handle 'er the last time and I don't know as I could do any better this time." She was just about half packed when Rowan came home at midnight.
"Have a good time?" Mary asked carefully.
"It was great!" Rowan's skin was flushed and she was grinning from ear to ear. Something had changed forever. "I met a whole bunch of kids."
"Yeah? They nice?"
"Most of them. Different, but nice." Rowan looked at the nearly empty bottle and shook her head gently. "You better be careful," she warned, "you know some of those ice cubes are tainted."
"Yeah. You're right." Mary finished her drink and managed to focus her eyes. "Guess it's time for bed," she decided.
Maybe God heard. Or maybe Rowan just wasn't her mother. The thing with Jerry lasted until fire season ended, it even lasted two or three scrawled letters after Rowan and Mary went back to camp, but it had dribbled away before snow shutdown, and nobody's heart was even bent, let alone cracked or broken.
Jerry was followed by Sid, who was six feet tall and had thick blond hair and an older sister in nursing school, a sister whose ice skates fit Rowan's feet so Sid could teach her to skate. Mary worried her way through several bottles of gin that winter, but if she had reason to worry, Rowan didn't let her know what it was.
"Do you and I have to have any kind of discussion about birth control?" Mary asked. The silence stretched, then Rowan shook her head, her face as red as her woollen socks. "You're sure?" Mary probed.
Rowan got up from her chair, went into her bedroom and returned with a circular plastic disk. Mary looked at the little apricot-coloured pills ringed around it, one for each day.
"You figure they'll do you any good in the case?" she tried to tease, and knew it fell flat. "Nothin' is much use if you don't use it."
"I've been using these for almost two years," Rowan answered.
Mary nodded. She took a sip of her drink and lit another cigarette.
"I know there's a lot of hoo-rah about are they safe or not," Rowan continued, "but I figure number one, there's enough of us in this cabin already, and number two," she grinned, and Mary saw herself years earlier, spitting in the devil's eye, "it takes real intestinal fortitude to flirt with cancer."
"That's my kid."
Eventually Rowan Hanson's heart was broken, by a laughing secondloader who never intended to break her heart. She lay on her bed and wept stormy tears into her pillow, brooded for a week, then pulled up her socks and got on with life. Mary left her alone through the worst of it, but when Rowan was ready to pick up the pieces, Mary was ready, perhaps not wearing a cheerleader suit and waving pompons, but in her own way, totally on Rowan's team.
"So what I was thinking. . . " Mary poured coffee, adding a hair of the dog to her own. "We'll be in snow shutdown soon. Maybe this time we should try to live like people do. I mean, you don't want to spend the rest of your life bobbin' on the waves in some float shack you have to share with roof rats and squirrels, working as cook's helper in a logging camp. Young woman like you probably wants some kind of real job and real life. So maybe we should just pack 'er up and try to be Townies, what do you think?"
Rowan looked up from her coffee. Mary smiled, and Rowan felt wrapped in love. She saw for the first time the lines in Mary's face, the sagging skin under her grandmother's eyes, the years of hard work etched in the knobby knuckles of her fingers. Mary's fifty candles were blown out, but it had been one helluva good cake. They could have years more together, why not have them with hot running water, a mammoth bathtub, and a job that only chewed up eight hours of your day instead of fourteen.
"I'd like that," she nodded. "I was thinking I'd like to take that course they have on driving trucks. Maybe after a while I'd find a way to swing it so I had my own, then you could come with me. Might be the only way we get to travel much."
"Yeah," Mary smiled, even though she figured their chances of owning a truck were about the same as a snowball's chances in hell. "There's got to be more to life than this coast. Stands to reason it's gotta be tacked onto something else!"
They moved into town and took an apartment within walking distance of anywhere you'd want to go. Mary got a job before all their stuff was unpacked and in place, but it took Rowan another two months to find something full time. That taught her more than any number of lectures could have done, and she was determined to learn to do the kind of work people would pay her to do.
"Now that we're in town," Mary said, settling herself on the ten-dollar geriatric couch they had bought at the Used'n'Re-Used, "there'll be young studs sniffing around all the time. I never figured we needed to have much in the way of 'a talk' but ... there's one thing I do want you to know."
"Yes, Grandmother dear," Rowan teased.
Mary grinned and took a bracing gulp of her overproof drink, then dove in headfirst. "People's gonna Expect you to do things a certain way and live your life by rules they never explain, they just lay 'em down and that's that. And you can do that if you want. Lots of people do that because they want to be what people Expect other people to be. But if any of that stuff sticks in your throat, just cough 'er up and spit 'er out. What I want for you might not be what other people think I should want. I want you to be able to live with yourself."
Mary took another good stiff gulp of her poison and stared down at the tabletop for long moments, sorting through her memories. Rowan sat listening and waiting, not feeling the least little bit as if her Gran was lecturing her or preaching to her.
"There's stuff about what went down between me'n your mom that I don't feel good about," Mary went on, "and there's nothing I can do to change any of it. There was nothing I could do at the time. I'd'a done 'er different if I'd'a been able to, darlin', but I wasn't much older then than you are now and nobody had done much about tellin' me the truth of things so I had to find out for myself. But even if I don't feel good about it, I can live with it because I know I mighta made mistakes, but I never meant to do harm."
"Gran... it's okay."
"Not for you to say it's okay, nor for me, either. It just is. And it can't be changed." Mary reached for her tobacco can and papers and rolled herself a smoke. Rowan waited while her grandmother lit up and inhaled. "What I feel damned good about is you, Smoocherooni." Mary smiled and wiped her eyes. "I never for one minute regretted havin' you in my life. We've had some rough times, but who doesn't, prob'ly even the Queen'a'England has days when she feels someone is shovellin' crap onto her head. I love you, and I like you, and I'm prouda you. So anyway," and she laughed briefly, "I'm runnin' on here like some kind of old fool. What I'm tryin' to say is I felt from the get-go that you were my chance. A body only gets one good kick at the can, kiddo, and if You miss, you've blown 'er. So when it's your turn to take your kick at the can, you do 'er because you'll hate yourself forever if you let it pass you by."
"I love you, Gran. I wouldn't change anything." Rowan kissed the air between them, then winked to lighten the mood. "What's that other thing you were going to tell me?"
"Everything and everybody's on a scale from one to ten," Mary lectured, not quite looking at Rowan, "and I want you to remember this: there's nothin' much wrong as I can see with goin' to pubs or bars and havin' a good time. But don't ever forget that come closin' time, all the twos look like tens."