Lindsay Foran is a recent graduate from the English Master’s program at the University of Ottawa. She has had stories published in Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Writer’s Ink, Lies with Occasional Truths. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.
The following work is copyright © 2011. All rights reserved. No distribution or reprinting in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.
I was once sprayed by a skunk while walking my dog. It was the middle of winter; a fresh blizzard had, days before, enclosed the city in an impenetrable dome of snow. Ice froze midway off roofs creating jagged frigid fingers pointed at the ground and as I walked, my footprints were quickly erased by the still persistent falling snow. The skunk, seemingly snow-blind, walked directly towards us, like a stranded ship-wrecked victim. My first thought was, ‘shouldn’t you be hibernating?’, but this didn’t deter the skunk as he abruptly shot his pungent, white, frothy weapon directly at us. Immediately, it was as though we’d been soaked in gasoline and dipped in a thick oily foam. It took days, if not weeks, for the smell to leave my clothes, my hair, the fur of my dog. Even now, the memory of that stench stubbornly resides in my nostrils having embedded itself there, offering me the perfume scent at random intervals, causing an unfailing panic in me that the skunk has returned.
They say muscles have memories, well, I think noses do too. Now I can’t drive past a dead skunk on the road without triggering my gag reflexes. For a time, the smell used to remind me of my teenage years and buying cheap skunky-marijuana off local middle aged druggies from behind the gas station, but now it always makes me think of bathing in tomato sauce, my poor dog with red burning eyes, and that misplaced skunk wandering the streets of downtown Toronto in the middle of a snow storm.
The smell of a dead body, I found out later, has a similar effect.
As kids, Jeff and I spent all of our time together. I would design snow forts, and he would gather all of the snow to build it. Building snow forts was a complicated and secretive task because Mom disapproved. We usually went down the road to an open field with our shovels and built them where she couldn’t see us. I was always very careful to reinforce the walls, but one time, when Jeff was six, he climbed into the fort before it was done and the roof collapsed on top of him. At first I thought he’d dig his way out, and I stood staring at the hump of snow, not realizing what had happened. After a couple of seconds I thought I should run back to get Mom, but I knew I didn’t have time for that, because if I didn’t get him out right away, he’d suffocate. I grabbed the shovel we’d been using to make the tunnels and I dug as fast as I could. My heart was racing, my breath short and quick, but I kept digging, thinking that I was taking too long; he’d been under there for too many minutes. Every time I stuck the shovel into the snow bank I expected I would jab it right into Jeff, so I threw the shovel to the side, dropped onto my knees and dug with both hands. I grabbed piles of snow at a time, pulling it onto my lap. I started to cry and scream his name, but he didn’t respond. Finally I saw his red scarf and I pulled on it until his whole head popped through the snow. His eyes were closed, his face was covered in snow, and I started to hit him as hard as I could on the back not knowing what else to do to wake him up. His eyes flew open, he gasped for breath as he started to frantically crawl and dig as though he were still underground.
“You’re ok, you’re out” I had to keep reassuring him until he burst out crying and nuzzled himself in my arms. He cried himself to sleep for months after that, always waking up screaming, gasping for air. He made me promise not to tell Mom, which was difficult because I heard her talking to friends about his sudden bed wetting and night terrors which she eventually blamed on some invented traumatic event at school.
As he got older it became harder for me to protect him. Dad was a long-distance transport truck driver which meant he was only home on weekends. When we were young, we spent most of our time with Dad camping, fishing, snowmobiling, but when I was ten, that suddenly changed. Dad spent his weekends at a bar, or sitting on the couch drinking and watching TV. Mom hid upstairs reading and left us, especially Jeff, as easy prey. As Jeff grew in size so too did Dad’s anger and drinking. Jeff was roughly nine years old the last year that Dad lived with us, but he was constantly mistaken for a teenager. He was tall for his age, broad shoulders, dark hair like Dad, and he hung around kids almost five years older than him. While other kids in his class were on soccer teams and playing Nintendo, Jeff was smoking with the big kids behind the bowling alley and coming home way past his curfew.
One Friday night Dad had stopped at the gas station to fill up, and as he was walking out of the station from paying he saw a boy jump out of his truck and dart down the street. The kid, Dad said, met up with three other boys on the corner and they all took off into the darkness. “They were laughing at me, at me! I wasn’t going to let them get away with that!” Dad was never much of a runner, so he jumped into his truck to follow them. Just as they cut through someone’s backyard, one of the boys turned around and looked right at him.
“It was Jeff, I swear on my life, that boy is no good,” he screamed at Mom when he got home. I ran to hide in my bedroom, but the walls were so thin, and his voice was furiously loud, that there really was nowhere to hide from him.
“It couldn’t have been Jeff, he’s been here with me all evening. He just left not two minutes before you came in the door. It couldn’t have been him.” Mom’s voice was wavering. I was about to go down and tell him that Jeff had been gone all evening, but I stopped myself.
“Whatever. You’ll say anything for him. That’s why he’s such a baby, cause his mamma treats him like one. I’ll teach him to be a real man!” Dad exclaimed. I heard him slam the bathroom door shut. I wasn’t sure where Mom had gone, but before I knew it, she was upstairs, shutting her bedroom door. She knew exactly where to step on the stairs so as not to make a sound; she was like a ghost, whispering through our house in the midst of a war.
That night Jeff came back home around nine, two hours past his curfew. Mom had been up in her room reading, and I was downstairs watching TV with Dad. It was some old black and white movie that I hated, but he had a tight grip on the remote and there was no way I was going to suggest that he change the channel. Dad heard Jeff’s footsteps on the porch before I did, I could see it in his face. His eyes darted over to the front door, his jaw locked down as though biting through raw flesh. He placed his bowl of popcorn down next to him on the couch and waited.
“Are these actors still alive, you think?” I asked. No response. I sat, feet tucked under me, hands under my buttocks, trying to make myself as small as possible. Jeff walked in head held high, jeans ripped at the knees and smeared in mud. He smelled like cigarettes. I was older than him and I’d never even tried to smoke, but Jeff already had his own pack which he hid inside his shoes.
“Oh what, you ‘re just gonna walk in here like nothing? Is that what you think? You and your damn attitude!” I couldn’t hear anything upstairs but I knew that Mom must have heard him. Jeff took off his shoes and didn’t acknowledge Dad. For a nine year old, he was used to this torture, used to ignoring him, used to the pain. Nothing was a shock to him anymore.
“Where were you tonight?” Dad asked as he walked across the living room floor. He stood right in front of Jeff, arm leaning on the couch so as to block any exit.
“Nowhere,” Jeff said as he tried to squeeze his way past. I thought he was going to let him at first as Dad moved his arm, stepped to the side, and motioned with one arm for Jeff to pass through. I couldn’t breathe or move. I tucked my knees tightly into my chest, placed my chin on top, and simply watched. Jeff made it to the end of the living room, and I thought he was free. I was about to untuck my knees and sneak out of the living room after Jeff when Dad turned to him and yelled:
“You don’t think I saw you? You little shit!” Jeff, without looking back at Dad, tried to make a dash towards the stairs. Dad was faster this time. He pounced like a massive lion on a three-legged zebra. He grabbed the back of his shirt and pulled him onto the linoleum floor. I heard the floor creak from above as Mom’s light footsteps shuffled across her bedroom.
“You’re a thief. Hanging out with low-lifes at the gas station. How stupid can you be to steal from your old man’s truck?” He kicked him hard in the back of the legs. Jeff moaned, grabbed his leg, but didn’t look up or say anything. I could only watch, paralyzed.
“You know what they do to thieves in some countries? Do ya? I’m asking you a question!” Dad screamed, his face hovering right on top of Jeff’s. I could imagine what his breath would smell like. Some mornings I would get up and there would be beer bottles on the counter with small traces of the sour liquid decaying at the bottom, releasing the stench of warm, stale alcohol.
“No Dad, I don’t know what they do to thieves” Jeff answered. I cringed recognizing a hint of attitude in his tone that I knew would get him punished.
“They cut off their hands. Is that what you want? Cause I can make that happen! I own you. No one will feel sorry for you. Your sister is sitting over there watching you, laughing at you. Everyone is laughing at you”. He pointed back towards me, but never looked over. I was terrified. I didn’t know if by his comment I was meant to laugh, or if I should still sit there in silence. I didn’t want to watch, but I couldn’t help it, they were in the doorway, and there was no where for me to go to escape this torture show.
He grabbed Jeff by the hair and pulled him onto his feet. He took the palm of his hand and struck it against the back of Jeff’s head. When Jeff was a bit younger he would scream, “This is abuse” and Dad’s response was always, “it’s not abuse unless I use my fist. You don’t want me to use my fist, do you?”
He pushed him with both hands into the wall behind him, grabbed the front of Jeff’s shirt and pushed him right back into the wall. He did that a few times. With each blow Jeff’s face tightened, his eyes squeezed shut. He held his arms in front of his face, more out of instinctual self-preservation than anything else.
“You’re not even worth my time. You’re just like your bitch Mother!” Dad yelled, and with one last blow to the head he turned to walk back into the living room. He glared at me as he walked passed, but I kept my eyes fixed on his, my chin still pressed tightly against my knees. He prowled over and stood towering over me, his eyes locked on mine. Despite my fear, I refused to look away. Somehow I knew that no matter how angry he got, he would never hit me, and those tiny moments of defiance allowed me to believe that I was untouchable, a naïve belief that would get me into trouble as years went on. He gave up first and returned to his seat on the couch. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Jeff’s body slumped on the floor. I wanted to run to him, but I couldn’t move. Mom rushed down the hallway, bent over his body, lifted him up, and returned upstairs with Jeff in her arms. He was a heavy kid and I was never sure how she had the strength to carry him.
I had always seen Jeff as an older guy, someone who no longer needed to be treated like a kid, but when I saw Mom cradling his broken body, I realized that I was wrong. I once asked Jeff what he thought about when Dad hit him. We were camping in our backyard, just the two of us in a tent. I felt safe in the canvassed darkness. The fear and expectation that he would dissolve into tears kept me from asking him to his face. Without a second’s pause he answered, “I think that one day I’ll be old enough and big enough that I’ll hit him so hard in the head that he’ll never get up again”. And that was it. No tears, no excuses.
Nights like that happened often until Dad ran out on us, only a few months after this, the worst beating. We managed without him, and learned, as years went by, to accept the silence in our house as a cursed blessing. Once I’d believed that the yelling and the noise would one day drown me, but the silence, I learned, was much worse. When I finally went to university it meant an escape from the hollowness of our home, and the constant fear that if I breathed too loudly, the thin wires that held us all together would snap. I applied to three universities, all of which were within a five hour drive from home, and I was accepted into all of them. Mom and Jeff were both under the impression that I was going to the community college in town, and when I told them I’d chosen Toronto, they both stopped speaking to me for a couple of weeks. I was gone for almost a year and a half before I spoke to Jeff, and before I went home. I couldn’t afford a bus ticket, or at least that’s what I told Mom anytime she asked when was I coming home. She called me often, told me about Jeff and his troubles. In the first month that I was away he dropped out of high school and was caught carrying a pound of hash which was enough to charge him with drug trafficking. I quickly began to resent her phone calls. Months went by and Jeff and I didn’t talk at all. I knew he’d never call me, so I refused to call him, mostly because I was worried that simply hearing his voice would cause me to drop out of school and rush home to him.
Just before Christmas break in my second year he called me at three in the morning. I answered and when I heard his voice I immediately thought someone had died.
“What’s wrong, Jeff? Is Mom ok?” I asked while sitting up in bed and starting to get dressed.
“She’s fine. I guess you’re not worried about me though, are you?” He asked with a typical guilt-ridden tone that he’d perfected.
“Listen, I need to get away for a bit, can I come stay with you?”
“What? I’m in the middle of exams. I can’t have any interruptions right now, Jeff. I’m sorry. Besides which, I live in rez, where would you sleep?”
“Forget it. God. I was just asking for one little favour, never mind” and he hung up. That was the last time we spoke. I didn’t know until later that he’d been stealing from Mom, dealing drugs out of her house, had even sold her car. He controlled her with threats that if she kicked him out he’d die on the streets. Christmas day she called to say she’d finally done it; she kicked him out. She had no idea where he was or if he was even alive. She burst into tears, and we sat on the phone together for almost an hour, neither of us talking.
After Christmas, before the next semester began, I decided to take the bus back home to check on Jeff. I definitely couldn’t afford it, my money was supposed to go towards food, and I wasn’t sure how I would make up an extra hundred and fifty dollars, but I had to go. After I’d gotten off the phone with Mom I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I pictured him lying in some gutter, or stuck in prison with no one to get him out. I wanted to help him, even though I had no idea how I was supposed to do that.
The bus brought me into town at eight in the evening on a Monday. I had called a friend and asked her to pick me up at the bus station which was about twenty kilometres outside of our town. Luckily, when I called her, she knew where Jeff was living. She had run into him at a bar the week before.
“He really misses you, you know. He said he was planning on moving to Toronto so the two of you could rent an apartment together and he could have a fresh start.” She told me as we drove away from the bus station. I looked out the window at the familiar scenery that I’d refused to see for over a year, and I tried to place Jeff in my life, pick him up from the gutter and prop him up in Toronto; I knew he’d never fit.
“This is the place,” she said as she pulled up outside the local motel. It was a known area for lowlifes and drug dealers. I thanked her for the ride, and stepped out into the cool night air. The wind whipped down the open field across the street and gained speed just in time to hurl itself onto the face of the motel. The guy behind the counter was probably my age, but I didn’t recognize him from high school. I asked him which room Jeff was in, he rolled his eyes, said 116, and went back to watching TV. The sign out front flashed ‘Vacancy’ in its stereotypical neon red fashion, and it seemed like Jeff must be the only tenant. Each room I passed down the long hallway was quiet. There were no TVs on, no radio, no voices arguing, just deafening silence. This wasn’t what I’d expected from this place. The carpet was a dark orange and with each step I felt gravity, or maybe just old chewing gum, pulling my feet down, gluing them to the fringy surface.
I finally reached room 116. I pressed my ear up against the door, but it was just like the others – silence. I knocked, quietly at first, as though I expected this motel to function like the library at school. I didn’t want to disrupt anyone’s work, although I knew that there was nothing to disrupt around here. I waited for a second, my ear back up against the door – nothing. I knocked louder this time, once, twice, waiting for a second each time to listen to if he was coming – again nothing. Then I pounded with both fists against the door, calling his name as loud as I could. It was possible he was out, and yet I needed to get into that room. I ran back to the front desk, a feeling of sheer panic seeming to rise up from my feet all the way to my eyes.
“Give me the key for 116!” The clerk looked up at me with utter confusion. I imagined he must have been trying to figure out if I was the same calm girl that spoke to him politely only two minutes before.
“Lady, I can’t just give you the keys. What do you want?” he asked, his bulgy red eyes fixed on mine.
“Someone’s in trouble, please!” I whispered at first, unsure of my words. When he still didn’t hand me the keys I began to panic.
“Now! I need it now!” I yelled. He exhaled in deep annoyance and moved slowly towards a drawer of keys. I was watching the door as though I were in the process of robbing him, but his lack of surprise and disinterest in my pleas made me realize that this guy had been through much worse situations than this. I grabbed the key out of his hand and sprinted down the hallway. His muffled voice was yelling at me from behind, but I didn’t stop to see what he wanted. I reached the door and fumbled at the lock, first trying the key one way, realizing it was backwards, flipping it around and tried to unlock the door. The lock was tight, but I felt it click and the doorknob loosened beneath my tense grip. I had to use my body to bang up against the door because the wood seemed to have expanded with moisture. As soon as the door gave way, I fell into the room and the smell hit me. I threw my hands up to my mouth, gagging, trying to control my instinct to vomit. The smell seemed to crawl its way across the ragged orange carpet and pounce itself at me, collecting new odours as it scrapped its filthy self along the stained ground.
I instinctively shut the door behind me. I thought for some reason that there’d be people following me and I wanted to hide Jeff, keep him away from the people that might come for him. I stood very still in front of the closed door. The bathroom was to my right, the lights were on, but I couldn’t tell if anyone was in there. From where I stood I couldn’t see the rest of the room. There was a mirror at the end of the small hall that allowed me to see some of the bed. It had a tacky pink and purple floral bedspread that was crumbled in a ball and half off the bed. My legs were shaking, my heart pounding. I was trying not to breathe, not only because of the smell, but because I was worried that if he heard me I would scare him. I was worried to step any closer because I thought there might be maggots – it smelled of them.
It seemed like hours had gone by before I actually moved. I was still standing in the same place when someone knocked on the door. I froze, tried to make myself invisible.
“Hey! What’s going on in there?” It must have been the clerk from the front. I stood in silence. I didn’t want him to know I was here. He started banging on the door.
“What the hell are you up to?” He turned the doorknob. Damn it, I forgot to lock it behind me. I could have reached back to slam it in his face, but I stood there waiting for him to come in. I wanted someone else here with me; I wanted to know I wasn’t alone; I wanted him to take me by the hand and drive me back to Toronto. I thought if he walked in and acted normal then everything was fine, maybe there was no smell.
He stepped into the room slowly and immediately covered up his face.
“Jesus Christ, what happened in here?” He gaped at me in panic. This must just be a side job for him; he doesn’t want trouble, and he doesn’t want to clean up any mess. He pushed me out of the way and ran into the room. I saw clutch his hand over his mouth. He ran quickly back into the bathroom and vomited in the sink. I couldn’t move. I thought as long as I didn’t see it, then it wasn’t real. The clerk stepped out of the bathroom, his face was sweaty and pale. I could smell the vomit on his breath.
“Why are you just standing there? There’s a dead body in here!” Because he hadn’t named him, I thought that perhaps it wasn’t even Jeff.
“Who is this kid in there? What is going on?” He was screaming. I hate it when people scream. Before I could answer he pushed me into the main part of the room and I practically tripped over the body. He was lying between the bed and the wall, only a few feet in front of where I’d been standing.
He was wearing unfamiliar red sneakers that were untied like Jeff’s shoes always were; he had on a pair of worn and dirty jeans that were undone at the top; he wasn’t wearing a shirt.
He was watching me.
I opened my mouth as though to scream, but no sound came out. This must be a bad dream, I thought. He had white froth at the mouth like a rabid animal. His right arm was strapped with an elastic tensor. There was a syringe on the floor. The inside of his right arm was bruised, purple and blue on his cool damp looking skin. I hovered over his body until the medical examiner loaded him into the body bag. I watched him roll away from me, and once he was out of my sight, I dropped to the floor, shaking and crying. He was gone.
Jeff had pushed me, head first into the snow bank, and now it was my turn to slowly suffocate. Only there was no one to pull me out as I gradually lost the function of my lungs, the ability to recognize my surroundings, to distinguish my own reflection.
A few weeks after Dad’s beating on Jeff I asked him if he had taken the money. Jeff laughed, turned his back to me and kept making his sandwich.
“What do you think?” he asked, his shoulders tensing up, with a quick glance back at me.
“I don’t think you took it” I said, testing him.
“You’re probably right then.”