It was the act of digging in the small window planter that did it, pushing the soup spoon down into the dark, root-tangled soil, turning it bottom for top, chopping up the clods. It had a rhythm to it and a history, one that dug into her life. From her fourth floor landing, she stood staring into the late evening sky of Vancouver, awash in the score of years she had so recently left behind.
How could the act of digging create such a powerful revisiting? Joanie wondered. It wasn't even foot on shovel sort of digging this time, just a kitchen spoon mixing about in her six inch planter. She noticed she used the same motion, however. She felt the same finality even, as when she had turned the garden each fall or plowed the fields before winter shut down the world. Brutal, frigid semi-arctic winter. Cold that could freeze expiration in mid breath, which could make spittle hit the ground with a clink.
She returned to taking out the summer petunias. The last three cool weeks had them showing their age. She was readying the box for winter primulas. How she loved to walk out in gray rain-filled mornings and see their daubs of color—bright scarlet, royal purple, gold, rose and virgin white dotted in among the Kelley green leaves. The first winter she was here, it amazed her to see flowers blooming in December, January and February. She pushed the spoon down to the bottom and brought up one last big chunk to turn over and break apart. Maybe memories are stored in muscles, she thought. She had read something to that effect once. It made her question what the brain was for if that was the case? She continued digging and turning and crushing the lumps between her fingers, letting the freed dirt trickle out, until all was loose and fluffy again. With open palms, she evened the surface, with the dignity of a Baba smoothing her apron upon rising. In the quiet that followed, the memories flooded in.
"Jim, for Christ's sake, can't you put your boots on the mat? Is that so much to ask?"
Joanie, arms laden with groceries, was trying to push the door open with her foot. Taking her foot back, she finally booted the door with enough force that it moved the debris behind it and banged into the wall. Once on the other side, she kicked it back in the opposite direction. Not hearing it click shut, she swung her hip against it finalizing the closing. She stood for a moment in the pocket of cold that is created by heat rushing out an open door into a winter's afternoon. Her fogged glasses blinding her momentarily, she waited still holding the groceries. All the while, Jim sat on the chesterfield watching a country western video. He had learned long ago how to ignore her unspoken needs.
It was a small house. Too small to hold out against the clutter that arises when you share the world with stock. Everything that could be damaged or rendered useless by freezing has to be brought inside during winter. Cans of paint, wood preservative, animal vaccines, motor oil, an endless list of them that stockmen share their lives with once the weather turns cold. It makes houses cave-like. It makes people crazy.
"Don't help or anything," she threw at him as she tripped over the step up into the kitchen. "I can't imagine what it would be like to have a man in my life with an ounce of thoughtfulness in him," she mumbled more to herself than to her husband in the next room. It took her a while to stop slamming the groceries on the counter as she emptied the bag. As her anger finally ebbed into resignation, each action became more and more mechanical, until robot-like she shut the last cupboard door.
She pulled the top of the coffee maker off and put in a clean filter. Bending to the shelf below the sink, she grabbed the coffee tin and ladled fresh grounds into the cone it created. The pot already contained water so she pushed the button. She crossed the kitchen and sunk onto her chair at the table, her hands supporting her chin as she tried to stare out the ice-encrusted windows. The old chrome set had seen many years. She had re-upholstered the chair seats twice now, stuffing them full with new foam and choosing from a limited selection of vinyls at the hardware store. Each time, she tried to capture a new look like she’d seen in the Better Homes and Gardens magazine. She'd change the curtains at the same time hoping for a miraculous renewal to an aging room in an equally old house.
Winter produced a sort of stupor in people. It wasn't so much the temperature, though that didn't help. It was the darkness and the drabness, endless grey against a backdrop of white or black. Joanie lit a cigarette and let the curling smoke carry her off. She wondered where the smoke went. Did it eventually end up on some tropical beach? Or get breathed in by dancers at Mardi Gras? Or float off into the upper reaches of space to rub shoulders with the universe? It felt good to let her mind go, anything to lift her out of this tiny little backwater, to separate her, if only momentarily, from all the shattered illusions of life and love and marriage.
The coffee maker stopped gurgling. She pushed herself up from the table and hunted for a clean cup. Pouring the dark liquid into her cup, she got lost again, this time in the coffee’s flow. As the coffee splashed onto the counter, she was jolted back.
"Shit," she hissed through her teeth, pulling the damp dishcloth out of the sink. "You want some coffee?" she called to her husband.
"Yeah," he called back.
It didn't seem to her that he ever felt this same sort of isolation that haunted her. She didn't get it. It didn't make sense. Was there something the matter with her? Was she somehow inadequate? She sighed and filled his cup. As she came round the corner, she fixed her eyes on the TV and handed him the cup without even looking. He glanced up at her as he reached for the coffee. He knew that stare. He'd seen it often. What did she want? What would make her happy? For sure he didn't know, and he'd given up some time ago worrying about it. Life was okay. What do you expect, he wanted to ask her? No use to get all head up about something you can't have. Seemed pretty straight forward to him.
She pulled her eyes back from the video and keeping them high above his vision, turned back to the kitchen, humming the tune from the song being played.
"You gone to work tomorrow?" They often had these conversations across two rooms.
"Maybe, if the weather smartens up. Broke three chains already this week. That hill's got too much steepness to it, especially with the wind we've been having."
"What's the matter? Getting chicken shit in your old age?"
When they weren't busy with the cows, Jim felled for various lumber outfits in the region. It was tough work, particularly when the snow was as deep as it was this year. It wasn't work to be taken lightly either. The bush was unforgiving. For those who got tired or careless, the trees reminded them, sometimes for eternity. Jim knew he was getting old for this work. Forty isn't old at a desk. But you remember you're forty when you work all day in the cold, in the deep snow, in the bush. Some mornings when he'd roll out of bed and start the day off hurting and tired, he'd worry. Deep down inside him there was fear. Most days he kept it at bay, but when the day beat him, it would set him to wondering. He was afraid of getting old. His life held no future for the aged. How could you rope cows, train horses and fell trees, old? He let the TV pull him back to the song on the show. He had his own little country western group, and he listened intently to this particular tune. It was one he wanted to use.
"When are we going to eat? A guy could starve to death around here."
"The guy around here could stand some starving. Sure looks like he's getting a middle on him to me."
Ritual pulled her to her feet, and she walked listlessly across the kitchen to the fridge. It seemed all she'd done her whole life was cook. Not much of a claim to fame. Her brow furrowed as she tried to remember her youthful fantasies of what life would be like. Mercifully, she couldn't. She pulled out the leftover beef stew and put it in the microwave. She threw some bread on a plate and hunted for a few condiments to add to it. Slices of cheddar cheese, a few jalapenõs, some sliced tomatoes; that was enough. Carrying it over to the table, she returned for the plates and stew. "Soup’s on, guy. Get your butt in here."
She sat down at the table. Not hungry, she looked over the food with detachment. He wasn't all bad, she thought. He'd hurt her, sleeping with other women and all in the bush camps. But she'd made him pay for that and gradually the hurt disappeared. It happened all the time in the bush. Community women didn't wallow in such heartaches. Rather, it was almost a cleansing. They could pour all their frustration and rage about life in general into that issue and vent their wrath. To get that angry otherwise might get them hit. So when they found out that their man had been cheating, they let fly and kept going until their anger was spent. The rules said he had to take it. Men got good at it. They even made jokes about among themselves, though they tried not to let their missus hear them at that sport. Women had no sense of humor when it came to that.
Jim worked cattle like a pro and trained some of the best horses in the country. Joanie felt proud to sit atop some of the quarter horses he had schooled. He was basically honest and though he yelled a lot, he didn't hit her. He wasn't a drunk either and every now and then he'd make her something beautiful with his leatherwork or repair her saddle without being asked and leave a tiny trace of himself in the work that only she would notice. She never commented, though. ‘Thanks’ was a dangerous word to her where he was concerned. He might get to like it or want it again.
Jim strolled in from the living room, looking like a man without a care. He sat next to her at the table. It was strange sort of. Most country men sat at the other head. He ladled stew into his bowl and slathered butter on a piece of bread. He laid some cheese slices on top of that and then sliced up a jalapenõ and dropped the pieces into his stew. "A meal fit for a king," he mused. He glanced up at Joanie. "How come you're not eating? You didn't poison it did you," he laughed.
He really wished she was happy. Now and again he heard her laughter, especially when the near-by neighbor, Tom, stopped by. He loved the lilt of it, the delicateness. He wished he could make her laugh like that, but he wasn't going to waste sleep over it. He did his best. He kept food on the table and put in an honest day's work. She could have done much worse, and if she didn't know it, there wasn't much he could do about that. He finished his meal in silence and watched her light up a cigarette for dessert. He wished she didn't smoke. It was bad for you, and there was a lot of sickness in her family. He had a coffee for dessert and got dressed and went out to light the fire in his shop woodstove. He'd spend what was left of the evening working on the saddle he was building. He loved the smell and feel of leather. It was almost as wondrous as the smoothness of a woman's body in his hand. In his shop, his youthful dreams returned. He felt useful, whole.
The next day dawned clear and cold. The wind was low, and Jim decided to finish that last patch of bush he had yet to fell. In his shop the night before, he had come to some conclusions. He was not going to fell any longer. He had figured out how he could use his leather working as a source of income. He'd have to figure out the details yet, but the decision felt good.
In the morning he told her, "I'll be home by dark. That's the last of felling for me. That hill's too dangerous. If it wasn't that I'd promised Jake I'd finish, I wouldn't even go today. But then that's it." He loaded his chainsaw into his pick-up.
Joanie looked at him curious, but said nothing. She handed him his lunch and a thermos of hot coffee she’d brought with her from the house. They never made a show of parting, so she just stepped back, and he pulled out of the drive.
Having the day to herself always felt freeing. She didn't know how she'd use it yet, but at least it was all her choice. She returned to the kitchen to have a second cup of coffee and plan out her time. She had to do the chores first, but she liked the time spent with the animals. She usually complained about it but that was more from her feeling unappreciated then her minding the work. She piled into her outdoor duds and took the dog with her as she walked to the barnyard. She fed the horses first and then turned them out in their corrals for some exercise. Next she watered the cattle and checked for any new arrivals. The calves born recently looked cold and frost covered in the weak morning sun. She scratched backs and petted noses of her friends and then filled her arms with stove lengths as she headed back to the house.
The day passed all too quickly and before she realized, it was time to start supper. Dusk closed in around you early in the winter. Jim would be home soon and hungry as a bear. As she pulled the meat out of the fridge, the phone rang for the first time all day. She picked it up and kept on walking toward the counter to continue her preparations. "Howdy," she twanged into the phone. It was noticeably quiet at the other end. She stopped and listened, thinking she may have not heard the caller. By now most country folks would have prattled well into the conversation of the moment. "Hello?" she asked this time.
"Is that you Joanie?" She recognized Helen's voice.
"Of course it is. Who else did you expect," she asked laughing?
"Joanie, I'm at the hospital. It's Jim. I guess a tree got hung up or something. Jake found him under it." Each sentence came out disjointed, like lines from different stories all strung together. "I'll get Tom to drive you in. God, I'm sorry, Hon."
She hung the phone up disbelieving. Did she dream what she heard? Was it real? It couldn't be. She walked across the kitchen and reached the chair just as her knees buckled. The chair was like an old friend who caught her in its arms. It was a place she knew, something she could count on. She took out a cigarette and lit it, her shock reducing her inhales to ragged gasps. What she blew out was spare, less than what drifted straight up off the tip until it wiggled into oblivion. Her trembling hand sent it off more quickly than usual, scattering it to where ever smoke goes. The subarctic darkness was closing in quickly. She didn’t rise to turn on a lamp but rather let the tip of her cigarette be all there was to keep the darkness at bay. The logs shifted in the woodstove, the fire now more ash than flame. The temperature was dropping both inside and out, but that didn’t concern her either. Her life as she knew it had just ended and suddenly her frustrations and bitching seemed so trifling compared to living alone in this wilderness.
The lights of the neighbor’s truck flashed across the window as he turned into the drive. Her heart used to quicken whenever he stopped by before, her fantasies stretching a smile across her face followed by a flirtatious wink. Without the backdrop of her husband’s shortcomings and flaws, there seemed nothing to justify such behavior.
She pulled on her winter boots and zipped up her parka. She grabbed her purse hanging on a hook on the wall, stubbed her cigarette out on the porch step and pulled the door shut. Strangely, all she wanted was one last time to say something kind to the man she’d shared her life with all these years. But now like her cigarette smoke, he too was gone, and she didn’t know where that was either.