by Carleigh Baker
Issue Three: April 1, 2020
(Excerpt from The Matriarchs)
Ember draws a portrait of Mademoiselle Morin on the foursquare courts with a piece of stolen chalk. The cement is crumbly and hasn’t been a good place to play games for years, which makes it a fine location for sidewalk art. She is technically alone, though the other fourth grade kids play dodgeball in the field to her left, screaming at the dull thunk the ball makes every time it connects with a body. Beyond the field, thick willows hide an unfenced water outflow that is off-limits during the school day, but a popular swimming spot on summer weekends even though it’s dangerous as hell. This is the eighties.
Every so often a couple of kids sprint across Ember’s canvas—ostensibly dodging the ball, but she suspects they’re trying to annoy her. She makes a show of working with singular focus. Her sweaty hands soften the chalk, so she works fast. Bulbous eyes and a devil’s smile she augments with buck teeth, then fangs. It still looks too goofy so she adds thick slanted eyebrows, and a pencil-thin moustache, curling out several times. She leans back on her heels and bares her teeth at it.
Last night was parent-teacher night. Ember’s muse pointed out to her parents how every other student had finished their assignments but her. Nineteen perfect little handwritten poems about a favourite pet, and a space where hers should be.
Quinn, one of her classmates, came to her aid. “Maybe she doesn’t have a pet,” he shouted, vibrating with an unholy energy. His parents hustled him over to the sugar-free date squares.
Afterwards, Mom hissed, “We were so embarrassed.”
Dad nodded his bald head. “Why would you make us go to parent teacher night if you have nothing to show?”
Ember has never considered that. She assumes all parents go to parent teacher night.
“If I’d known everything was going to be so hard for you,” Mom said, “I never would have bothered with kids.” This is probably not what the author of Tough Love—one of the many self-help books Ember’s mom devours—has in mind.
In the eighties, they are called nervous breakdowns and they look like this: a ruthless real estate tycoon loses it all on the stock market one day, chucks his brick phone out a twenty-second storey window, smash cuts to his Corvette and drives down the California coastline while the wind carries his tie to the sea. Then he falls in love, and writes the great American novel. Ember’s breakdown does not look like that.
Huge boobs complete the chalk portrait, a pair of bull’s-eyes Ember associates with shame, though she doesn’t know why yet. Positioned in an anatomically impossible location, she realizes, but there’s no going back now. A dodgeball player slows her pace, laughs at the drawing. “C’est qui ça?” French Immersion students are forbidden from speaking English, even at lunch time.
“Nobody,” Ember replies.
The girl narrows her eyes, trying to decide whether the picture or the refusal to speak French is a bigger snitch-worthy offence. Ember matches her gaze, hoping she looks like her mom. “Boobies,” the girl finally says, skipping back to the game.
After some consideration, Ember decides she should cover up the boobs, but the chalk in her hands has turned to mush.
Lunch is followed by cursive writing class. To fit five upper-case F’s across one line of a little beige notebook—such an intricate job to do with a crude pencil lead. Even at the slowest pace, Ember’s hands don’t recognize the borders her eyes can see. Erasers just smudge the mess across the margin. When Mademoiselle takes Ember’s erasers away, as if their presence is somehow responsible for her ineptitude, she wets her finger and tried to rub out the mistakes, which leaves little holes in the paper.
“Pourquoi en lettres attachées ? C’est quoi le problème avec les lettres détachées ?” Ember asks.
“Tes lettres détachées sont aussi affreuses.” Mademoiselle says, and of course she’s right. It is awful. So, when copying printed notes off the chalkboard, Ember memorizes the entire section so that she can finish while Mademoiselle wipes it away and starts the next. But eventually, when the lesson’s over, it’s obvious who’s still plodding away, lips moving silently as she recalls the final sentences.
Hard to say why this teacher figures that shame is the ticket to success. When Quinn gets fidgety, Mademoiselle ties him to his desk with a skipping rope. He laughs about it, the students laugh about it, even when he pees himself while strapped in one afternoon. But this is the era of Tough Love.
Mademoiselle’s humiliation regime involves holding up Ember’s messy or unfinished work for the class to laugh at. Giving out achievement awards to everyone but Ember. Making her stand in the corner until, yes, she pees herself. Then she’s changed into her gym strip, and left in the nurses office until Mom—nostrils flared and dangerously silent— arrives to pick her up. Ember is too afraid to say what the circumstances are that led to the accident, and Mademoiselle becomes much more solicitous whenever any noticeable damage is done, so the adults assume Ember just isn’t excusing herself. It’s decided that Mademoiselle will send her to the bathroom several times a day, whether she needs it or not.
Before cursive practice ends, Quinn asks for a hallway pass. Mademoiselle waves Ember out the door behind him. Without students, the school hallways are cavernous—lined with posters for school spirit days and smelling like wet winter coats. Ember walks several steps behind Quinn, and watches him go into the boy’s room. Curious what it’s like in there, she follows him.
There’s a quiet to the washrooms that Ember likes, her shoulders drop and it’s easy for her to breathe. The light is diffuse and warm. Quinn’s just standing there, looking up at a small, frosted glass window. He turns when the door bangs shut.
“What are you doing here?” he asks.
“I dunno,” she says, and this satisfies him, so he takes a red rubber ball out of his pocket and tosses it at her.
“Good bounce in here,” he says.
They spend a few minutes bouncing the ball, trying to touch the ceiling and catch it before it lands in the urinals. Ember has seen urinals before but it hasn’t clicked that this is where guys piss until now.
“How do you work those things?” she asks.
Quinn walks over and flushes one, and she wonders how this design could possibly be any better than a toilet.
“What are those white pucks?” she asks.
“Don’t eat those,” Quinn says. “That’s all I know.”
To Ember, this seems like great masculine wisdom.
It’s a few weeks before Quinn and Ember get caught on one of their boy’s room rendezvous. Neither of them has considered that anyone would miss their presence in class. Mademoiselle is waiting outside the door, hands on her hips.
“What were you doing in there?” she demands, in forbidden English.
They both shrug, so she hauls them back to class and tells them to wait at the group-work tables. Quinn and Ember don’t look at each other, but the other students watch them and whisper.
When class is dismissed, their parents are already waiting in the hallway. Mister Potter, the principal, is there. Quinn’s mother is smiling and nodding, she leans in and whispers something and everyone laughs, even Ember’s mom. This is confusing. A less tough love. Even after Quinn’s family leaves, Mademoiselle remains in a huddle with Ember’s parents. She points to the chalkboard, then out the window.
Nobody says anything to Ember until she is in the car on the way home.
“You and Quinn have fun in there?” Dad asks.
“Girls aren’t allowed in the boy’s washroom.” Mom says. She turns around in her seat and looks at Ember, brows knit together like the chalk portrait. “So you need to stay out of there.”
“Did you draw a picture of your teacher outside?” Dad asks.
“She hates us,” Ember says.
Mom shakes her head. “Nobody hates you.”
There is a quiet after that, not the boy’s room kind. Ember never knows whether this quiet is a good or bad thing.
Everything gets worse, and not just at school. Ember can’t sleep. She has a reoccurring nightmare of a zombie-like bovine, with a horned skull atop a backwards cow body. Sometimes she is walking through a corn maze, or hanging out at the water outflow behind the school, but at a certain point the phantom cow appears, on a rooftop or in a willow tree, and watches. This is when the sound disappears, and the dream camera pulls back so that she is seeing both herself and the interloper—a threat that looms but never actualizes. She wakes up with her chest heaving. Not wanting to risk Mom’s anger, she sneaks into her parents’ room and lies down on the floor next to their waterbed. They find her there in the morning, but she won’t tell them why.
She steals salt water taffy from the big open counters at Safeway, then, a Cadbury’s Easter Cream Egg which her parents immediately smell on her breath and march her right over to the store manager to apologize.
“No harm done,” he laughs. Pats her on the head.
This time Mom doesn’t laugh along. “Honestly, if this keeps up, you won’t have a place to live any more,” she says. Dad opens his mouth but she silences him with an authoritative hand.
“Maybe I’ll live with Quinn,” Ember whispers.
“No one wants to live with a thief,” Mom says, and of course she’s right. Thieves are unlovable.
The store manager looks at his shoes.
The next day, Ember decides to steal a pair of white lace fingerless gloves at the Pharmasave. She has a vague impression that since Madonna wears them in the Like a Virgin music video, they must be cool, but under no circumstances does she believe a fourth-grader would ever be allowed to dress like Madonna. Still, she shoves them in her backpack, then joins her parents in the Christmas ornaments aisle. They make it all the way to the door before they’re stopped.
“I’m sorry,” the secret shopper says. “You should all come with me.”
Mom turns to Ember. “What did you do?”
Cold sweat runs down Ember’s back, but she says nothing.
The manager’s office is a dark cubicle at the back of the store. There’s barely enough room for everyone when the secret shopper closes the door. She picks up a red telephone and says, “Mitch to the office,” but before Mitch can get there, Ember throws her head back and starts screaming blue murder. Then everything is chaos, people knocking folders on the floor and scrambling to shove a glass of water into Ember’s face and begging her to stop. But she can’t stop, not now. She has so much to say, and no idea which words to use. This, finally, gets her parents attention.
The McDonald’s in Ember’s town has a dedicated space for kids’ birthdays, with a mural of all the McDonaldland characters reverently gathered around a plastic throne where the birthday kid sits. In the hills behind Grimace, Ronald, and Mayor McCheese, little hamburgers run free. The tables and chairs are kid-sized, and there’s a kid-sized toilet in the washroom.
After Ember’s breakdown, her parents throw her a party with a couple of the neighbourhood kids, and Quinn. It’s the first time she’s ever heard of a party being held there without a birthday to celebrate. Some of the parents are confused, and send their kids along with presents, which Ember graciously accepts.
The birthday section is good, but the best thing about the McDonald’s is this woman whose job is to just walk around and talk with people—like the greeters in Walmart but better. She is grandmother age, with a round face and small grey eyes. Her polyester uniform is a deep burgundy colour and has more flair than the cashiers’.
“I like your pins,” Ember tells her.
“People bring them to me from all over the world,” she says. “I wear them to work even though the manager says I shouldn’t.”
“I get that,” Ember says.
On Ember’s day—the “sorry for not realizing you have issues,” party—this woman brings out a butterscotch sundae with a sparkler in it and sets it down in front of her.
“You must be really special to be celebrated like this even when it’s not your birthday,” the woman says, and squeezes Ember’s little hand. Ember’s glad the woman thinks so, though she’s not convinced it’s true. It’s confusing to go from persona non-grata to celebrated community member. She holds her breath and waits for the phantom cow to show up, but it never does, not that day.
Carleigh Baker is an nêhiyaw âpihtawikosisân /Icelandic writer who lives as a guest on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Skwxwú7mesh, and səl̓ilwəta peoples. Her work has appeared in Best Canadian Essays, The Short Story Advent Calendar, and The Journey Prize Stories. She also writes reviews for the Globe and Mail and the Literary Review of Canada. Her debut story collection, Bad Endings (Anvil, 2017) won the City of Vancouver Book Award, and was also a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Emerging Indigenous Voices Award for fiction, and the BC Book Prize Bill Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award. She is the 2019/20 writer in residence and a 2020 Shadbolt fellow in the humanities at Simon Fraser University.