WindTails Excerpts

From Tailwind (the beginning):

It’s the first day of the third week. Jo never thought she’d get used to starting work at six a.m., but the truth is, she’s starting to like it. Even college classes, when she last attended, didn’t require rising so early, and then mornings included the bustle of her mother heading off to work at the clinic, her father’s newspaper rattle at the kitchen table, the morning banter—on the good days—between them. It’s September: she should be at home, just starting second year, perhaps sharing an apartment with other students. Every Sunday, dinner with her parents, a load of laundry churning away in the basement while they eat. She pushes away the small pang she feels for that domestic scene.

Instead, Jo turns her attention to the earthy smell of coffee as it begins to percolate in the big countertop urn. When it’s done, she’ll pour herself a cup and hope for enough time to savour it before the first customer comes in. The early fall sunlight begins to slant across the worn linoleum as the sun crests the tops of the pines across the highway. There is birdsong, and the relative, temporary peace. Temporary, because the first customer can pull in to the gravel lot at any time; relative, because there is outward peace, and then there is inward peace.

As the coffee perks, Jo ties her straight red hair into a ponytail; nothing like a long hair in the soup to send a customer squawking and Cass scolding. There are four tables on either side of the door, two in the middle of the diner. As the sun glances off their surfaces, Jo can see the remains of coffee rings, small scatterings of salt and sugar, evidence of sloppy clean-up, and so she begins wiping the plastic covers. Cass would have something to say if she came in and saw a less-than-clean table, not that it’s likely. When Jo hauled herself up from her cot in the back room of the trailer a half hour ago, Cass’s snores suggested an extended lie-in, something Jo has come to expect. Twice, so far, Cass has spent the whole day in the trailer, ankles propped on the coffee table, reclining in a nest of pillows and crocheted afghans, watching soaps on the one channel available to this part of British Columbia.

Jo leans across the swivel stools to wipe the arborite counter that runs along the back of the room. At one end is the cash register; behind it, coffee urn, dishes, cutlery, cooler, and cut into the wall behind, a window with a ledge on which to set the orders. A set of swinging doors to one side blocks the kitchen view from the restaurant.

Surfaces clean, there isn’t much to do; she’s got the grill heating, everything’s ready to go. Sitting on the corner stool, jeans sticking to a peeling edge of duct tape, Jo scans her surroundings, now becoming familiar. On each table, salt and pepper shakers in the shape of jumping trout, or chickens, or, on the table nearest the door, skunks embracing; plastic flowers in a tomato paste can covered with wallpaper; a cylindrical sugar dispenser, the sun through the glass casting a glow across the table’s surface. On the washroom door, a sign that reads abandon all hope, ye who enter here. On the wall, the plaster Jesus hands beside the Coke cooler angle upwards towards last year’s 1976 classic car calendar. Above that, a chalkboard proclaims the soup of the day, yesterday’s rubbed out, today’s still unwritten. The glass display case holds three pies of varying degrees of wholeness labeled carefully: Apple, Rhubarb, Lemon Marrang. Real Lard Crust reads a fourth sign, folded to stand like a little pup tent.

There is the whoosh of a car passing on the two-lane highway: an early riser, not stopping. Jo pulls the lever on the bottom of the urn, watching the level of coffee in the glass tube adjust downwards as the liquid swirls into the cup. Cream, two sugars. This is her time.

Biker Baby Born with Gang Tattoo, reads the tabloid headline on the newspaper left by a customer. It’s ridiculous, of course. It should make her laugh, but instead, Jo feels the push of tears. It’s just the suggestion, she knows. Maybe it’s just the word baby. She wonders how long it will affect her in this way. She folds the paper and shoves it with the others on the corner of the counter, leans back against the wall, and closes her eyes.

From Blown Away:

Evelyn keeps looking over her shoulder, although she can’t quite remember why. It’s a beautiful day, now that the sun’s come out. The leaves on the trees sparkle from the recent rain; from the road, vapour lifts in fairy tendrils.  She loves driving the Rambler, loves its butter yellow colour. When she dressed this morning in her yellow suit and hat, white gloves and pumps, she thought of the picture she would make, stepping out of her car at the library. “Pretty as a picture you are,” Bryce would always say, and so she always tried to be. Then, as she appraised herself in the hallway mirror, she remembered about Bryce. Evelyn has a hard time holding onto thoughts.

Bryce doesn’t like Evelyn to go very far. In fact, he forbids Evelyn to go very far. “This town is all you need, darling,” he tells her, and she believes him. At least, she did until yesterday. In town there is a pharmacy, a hardware store, a small library, and a medical clinic. At the Fashion Shoppe, the clerk knows her favourite colours. There are a handful of restaurants, from the Tastee De-Light to the Lucky Dragon. The movie theatre that shows each movie for three days, by which time everybody who wants to has seen it. Evelyn knows the town, from one edge to the other, and that’s all. It’s enough; Bryce says so.

When Evelyn goes to City Hall to politely suggest the placement of more planters on the sidewalks, or to the shoe store for polish, or the greengrocer for tomatoes, everybody knows her by name. For Evelyn, there is an invisible wall beyond which she knows she must not go. So if Bryce asks her about her day, she will say: “Oh, I just stayed around town,” and that’s that. It’s enough for Evelyn, because Bryce looks after her. Ever since she was picked up by the police.

Evelyn had always loved flowers. Blue hydrangeas, orange day lilies, roses the colour of a winter sunset. In her mother’s flower shop, she would touch the cuttings as they lay across the table, cascades of colour and scent. As a small girl she would place a rose petal against her cheek, feel the innocence there; in her white-blonde hair her mother would pin the flowers whose heads had broken, and so could not be used in an arrangement. Her hair filled with the broken heads of flowers, Evelyn would dance around the shop, delighting customers.

When her mother died, the trustee set up an allowance from the estate under strict instructions as per the monthly allotment until such time as she was married, at which time the remaining funds would be released. This was because Evelyn’s mother was unsure of her daughter’s ability to handle money, and hoped that someday a good man would recognize Evelyn for the sweet girl she was. But until such a thing might happen, the allowance remained. Evelyn’s mother had not anticipated the increased cost of living, and so things for Evelyn became difficult. She didn’t mind the empty refrigerator; what she minded was the absence of flowers.

It started off simply enough: she would find flowers poking out from under a fence, but there always seemed to be nicer ones inside the fence. I’ll just take one step, just one, she’d think to herself, and reach as far as she could with that one step, slender, pale fingers straining for the magnificent purple iris just out of reach. It became two steps, then three: tiger lilies, forsythia, calendula—as a child she wished she had been named Calendula—until a close call with a large Alsatian frightened her. Then she became attracted to bouquets. At the doctor’s, the cut flowers on the receptionist’s desk went into her purse, a large handbag she kept unfastened for the purpose. But the prettiest bouquets were at Frederico’s, the nicest restaurant in town. Small, exquisite bouquets on every table. Evelyn could see them through the window. If she was walking by she’d go in on pretext to use the bathroom; as she slipped out she would just tuck one into her bag—there were so many of them, after all—and step onto the street as if nothing had happened.

Constable Bryce Smithson, as the investigating officer, took Frederico’s statement. Of course there was only a reprimand: it was a small crime, and then there was Evelyn, being who she was and all. But later, after the file was closed, the constable arrived one afternoon at Evelyn’s apartment door with the biggest bouquet of flowers the florist could make for him. It was obvious to Evelyn that he didn’t believe the reports that she was “a little touched” as Dr. Croasdaile said when he came to her defense that day at the police station. Bryce asked Evelyn out for dinner that very night, and again the next night, avoiding Frederico’s. He was besotted. “My delicate little flower,” he called her, always afraid of what might happen to her “out there in the world.”

At the wedding, the pungent perfume of hundreds of bouquets eclipsed the headiest scents worn by the oldest of old ladies; everyone in town came, if only to see the spectacle of someone actually marrying Evelyn Sallaway: after all, Evelyn was an odd duck at the best of times.

Evelyn loved the way Bryce would kiss her forehead as he left for work, saying: “now stay close, my little rosebud.” Every Friday, when Bryce came home, a new, fresh bouquet would appear on the table in the hallway, just by the door.

Evelyn hoped for children, little flowers she could nurture, but time passed, and none came. For a while, Evelyn was content to keep house, but you can only dust the mantle so many times. She tried hobbies: macramé, paper tole, coppercraft. After a while, there were bits of paper stuck everywhere in the house, knots in everything. The copper gave her a rash. “Volunteer work?” suggested Bryce. So Evelyn joined the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, but the thrift shop made her sneeze. She tried the Hospital Auxiliary, but got migraines every time she went into the building.

She was heading for the library one afternoon—another visit to the craft section, 745.5, she had it memorized—when she saw the young woman with the large packsack hitchhiking along the side of the road.

Evelyn thinks about her now, as the yellow rambler crests a hill, the valley opening up in front of her. Just a little while ago it had been raining here as hard as it had been that particular day; Evelyn had felt sorry for the girl, and pulled over. The young woman, when she got into the car, looked positively drowned. Everything about her hung: straight, wet, black hair, dripping blouse, long skirt soaked at the hem, lace-up boots. Her packsack had drawings on it—peace, love—all bleeding in the rain. Normally, having somebody so wet on her clean upholstery would upset Evelyn, but that day she felt her heart race, her pulse quicken at this complete—stranger—in her car, somebody about whom she knew nothing. Somebody who came from somewhere else. Somebody who was going somewhere else.

She drove towards the edge of town, and as the rain came down around them the girl told Evelyn all about herself as she dripped on the seat of the car, and Evelyn listened, enraptured. She was going to meet up with friends at a big concert just south of the border. “It’ll be really far out.”

Evelyn thought she meant far out of town, so she told the girl she could only take her to the city limits. The girl didn’t ask why, just told Evelyn that was “cool,” which confused Evelyn, it being quite a warm day despite the rain.

When Evelyn’s passenger explained about the bands that were going to be there, Evelyn wondered aloud at the notion that anyone would be grateful to be dead, and when the girl explained it more clearly, Evelyn told her gently that perhaps they should see someone who could help. She told the girl about the doctor she went to every week who listened so nicely.

When, at the edge of town, the girl thanked Evelyn and told her she was beautiful, Evelyn felt warm all over. “Peace,” the girl said as she got out, and Evelyn thought that was such a nice thing to say. As she pulled into Garry’s Gas & Grub to turn around she realized she had driven past the town’s limits, past the limit Bryce had given her, and that nothing bad had happened. When she looked at the odometer she saw she had traveled exactly thirty miles, and so it was then that thirty miles became Evelyn’s new limit.

The next time she picked up a hitchhiker—Ray, who was going to work on the new dams—she asked for a postcard. “That’s all I ask,” she told him before she pulled back onto the road from the shoulder. “You agree to send me a postcard when you get to where you’re going, and I’ll give you a lift.” She felt powerful, even a little dangerous, making this demand, but Ray looked at her for a long moment, and then: “Sure, ma’am,” he said, and Evelyn believed him.

She never told Bryce about the postcards she kept in the back of the recipe card file in the kitchen. The Peace Tower; the Grand Canyon; a Venetian gondolier. On the back of a postcard of a hydroelectric dam, the words in block letters read: HERE’S THE POSTCARD YOU ASKED FOR. RAY.

Sometimes, they didn’t understand, or appeared frustrated that she would only take them such a short distance. But once they were in the car and Evelyn told them about Bryce and the flowers, by the time she would pull over to drop them off they would promise to write. And they all do: Ray has been sending her postcards now for two years, even though she only ever asked for the one.

Evelyn, driving along the secondary highway, sees an old house just off the road that looks as if it hasn’t seen paint in fifty years. It reminds her of the old fellow she picked up once, himself looking as dusty and neglected as that house. He started riding the rails during the depression, he told Evelyn, and just couldn’t settle down after that, even when times got better. Sometimes he follows the rail lines, other times it’s the highway. “Been across the country fourteen times,” he said. The postcard he sent her said “St. John’s Newfoundland” across the top. Saltbox houses in deep yellows, rich reds, electric blues, colours like the richest of flowers. Big Ben, Peggy’s Cove, a postcard showing a man and a trout that reads in red script: Gone fishin’—in Lake Okanagan!—they are equally exotic to Evelyn.

She strove for normalcy as she kept her secret. By day she went driving, looking for hitchhikers. She would ask them where they had been, where they were going, their futures stretching ahead like the road in front of her. Every evening she’d be sure to be waiting by the door for Bryce to come home from work, the house clean, dinner in the oven. Fridays, after he came in and kissed her on the forehead, Evelyn would take the fresh flowers and replace the old, careful to remove every leaf and petal in the new arrangement that wasn’t absolutely perfect. She’d carefully place the vase—daffodils in spring, carnations in the winter, iris, gladiolas, yellow roses —on the hall table and then she’d fix him his drink, and sit, hands in her lap, while he told her about his day.

Then, two weeks ago, Evelyn was driving by Frederico’s at noon and saw her husband eating lunch with a girl she had never seen before. “Oh, that’s just Brenda,” Bryce told her later. “She’s taking over at reception for Charlene while Charlene’s looking after her husband. You know, the fellow who had the accident at the mill,” and he started talking about how the mill has been getting lax about the safety regulations, and how there’ll be an investigation for sure, and then it was time for Evelyn to take the casserole out of the oven.

A few days later Evelyn was cleaning out Bryce’s pockets to take his pants to the drycleaner, and found a hotel receipt. “I loaned my pants to Percy when he spilled coffee over his. He had an important meeting with the mayor, but I was just going to be behind a desk all day, so we switched,” Bryce told Evelyn. “That must be Percy’s receipt.”

Evelyn thought nothing more about it.

But then came the Friday he wasn’t home for dinner. In the past, if he had to stay late, he would always call. But this time dinner was dried out in the oven when Bryce hurried in, apologizing, telling Evelyn about a call, and emergency that kept him overtime, and then he stopped what he was saying and looked at the hall table. It was Friday. A tulip petal had fallen from the bouquet. The flowers were wide open, the way tulips are when their time is past, like open hearts. One touch, and they fall apart.

He had forgotten.

From Archie:

There’s drivers know when to push on, drivers know when to stop, like I said. Most times I like to pull over away from the crowd, where I can get some sleep. I’ve been known to stop at the diner for a meal, shoot the shit with whoever’s around, then head on up the highway ten miles and find some lonely siding. Makes sense: refer trucks, to keep cold, they’ll run all night, but the motor cutting in and out’ll drive you crazy. In the winter, truck’s gonna run all night to keep the heat up. Cattle cars are the worst, smell like shit and make a racket. Get a nice quiet spot, park Betsy on a flat, have a drink, conk out. All you can hear are the crickets.

There’s guys got their pitstops like me, and there’s guys who keep a photo of Shirley or Peggy or whoever on the visor at all times. And there’s guys see the road as a mobile cathouse. Me, I  tell those lot lizards I don’t need their services thanksverymuch, and if they get belligerent I tell them to take a hike, more or less, and I’m not sorry for saying it either. You gotta be able to take no.

One night I was pulled at a truck stop, a big lot, seven or eight rigs pulled up. I’ve got a low-bed with a cat on the back, running a little ahead of schedule and feeling pretty good about it. Don’t recognize any of the rigs in the lot, but that’s okay. You don’t always feel like talking. Everyone’s in the diner or in their cabs, nobody in the parking lot. I decide to stay put: it’s quiet, and anyways there’s a mountain pass ahead I know from experience means I’d have to park either slanted up or slanted down, no good place to stop at the top. It’s gotta be level or I wake up my face crushed into the back of the seat cause I’ve rolled with the slope. So, yeah, I decide to have a bite, stay put for a few hours, get forty winks on the flat. The diner’s all lit up, one or two guys gulping coffee inside. Overhead there’s a million stars. I’m kinda sentimental about stars. I see the Big Dipper, Orion. Casseopia, which always makes me think of Cass.

After I wolf a coupla burgers, fries, and a glass of milk (Myra’s always after me about the milk) I’m thinking about the Jack Daniels I got in the rig, thinking to listen to what’s going on out there on the CB for a while, then hit the sack. But first I have a smoke, look at the stars, and when I pull my head back down there’s this lady going truck to truck and of course I know what she’s doing. I watch her for a bit but there don’t seem to be any takers the first two, and I’m at the end of the row, pretty much. I’d rather she wasn’t climbing up onto my cab with me not inside, so I head back a bit ahead of her.

When she gets to my rig I’m just butting out my cigarette, ready to call it a night. She’s about forty and looks like something the cat drug in, dark red nails bitten down, mascara running into the bags under her eyes, little thumb-sized bruises all over her neck and right down into the crack between her boobs where they hang in a blue shirt that says shake ‘em baby. No thanks, I tell her, but she keeps knocking down the price, first a hundred, then sixty, and before long it’s a blowjob for two bucks.

When I told her to take a hike it was with no satisfaction. It felt ugly, you know, dirty and pathetic in more ways than I can tell watching this sorry whore stagger off to the diner, because there was no more prospects after I turned her down.

I watched her through the lit up window as she slid into a booth seat, only one in the place, tried to see the waitress’s face, couldn’t see if she felt sorry or just disgusted as she poured the coffee, watched the small change counted out on the counter. She was pathetic, all right, but she coulda been anyone. You just never know what life’s gonna throw at you. You never know the story behind the lot lizard in the truck stop selling anything you want for a deuce.

I was tired, I’ll tell you, ready for the sack like you wouldn’t believe, the JD starting to take effect, but I got out and went over to the truck behind me, a new Bulldog with chrome everywhere and a load of culverts that had to be overweight, probably planning to haul out in the middle of the night to beat the scales. I hammered on the door and there’s this big guy, a whole lot bigger than me, pushes the door open. Whadyawant, he asks, and I think maybe this is pretty stupid but I hook my thumb in the direction of truck stop window, light spilling out and the waitress pouring a second cup for the hooker sitting in the booth.

“You even thought about it for ten seconds, you pay up.”


“You even thought about it, even for one second, that’s ten bucks. Ten bucks a second. Takin’ up a collection,” I jerked my thumb again at the window behind me. “She needs a meal. Hell, needs a doctor. Needs a break, anyway.”

He looks at me, looks at her, shakes his head. Hauls out the wallet from his back pocket. Digs in and pulls out a twenty, then digs some more and pulls out a ten. I’m waiting, looking at the bobbing head of the hula girl on the dash. I take the cash and nod, start to walk away. “Wait,” he says. “I’m comin’.”

Two of us together, we made a good argument. By the time we got to the last rig in the lot, we had 213 dollars. My new buddy went back to his rig, grinning, and I slid into the booth opposite the woman, feeling pretty damn good about the whole affair. We were the only two in the diner, must’ve been just about closing time. Well, I looked at her, and thought: she may be a two-bit whore, nothing no mother would ever want her daughter to be, but you had to feel sorry for whatever put her there. She’s sitting there in that baby blue shirt that says shake ‘em, baby. And she looks at the pile of bills for a full minute before saying anything, while I wait, looking at her.

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