Short Fiction

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(c) Ruth Latta, 2000

This story won second prize in February 2001 in the Ottawa branch of the Canadian Authors' Association short fiction contest.


by Ruth Latta

      Christina put down her mug of rose-hip tea and stared out the window at a large moving blob of lilac and white. It was Mrs. Baxter -- Babs -- striding through the fallow field behind the farmhouse, just as she had the previous Sunday.

      Christina had always enjoyed breathing the beauty of summer, but when she went out for a walk she wore jeans and running shoes. Here was Babs Baxter in her purple and white church outfit, complete with straw hat and white gloves, paying no attention to the tendrils of vetch and wisps of wild mustard tugging at her hem.

      Where was she going? To gather wild mint along the river? According to Patti, who ran the post office, the herb was plentiful along the edge of the Baxter's back eighty acres. But who would go gathering mint, dressed to the nines? And if Babs truly had a mint emergency, wouldn't she hop in her car and drive onto the bridge road, or at least walk along the paved highway. Or maybe she didn't want to pass by her husband's farm equipment dealership, which attracted a lot of farmers on a Sunday. Maybe Bob Baxter wanted her at home on a Sunday afternoon, making him a good dinner. Perhaps it was to avoid his gaze that she was plowing her way with tunnel vision through the overgrown field.

      Or maybe she was possessed by menopausal craziness. As Babs barrelled over the hillside, Christina sipped her tea and reminded herself that she was only forty-five. After two more weeks, nurturing her talent in this quiet Ontario village, she would be back in the city with access to all the latest therapies. She would never let herself go, the way Babs had.

      Bovine, taciturn Babs wasn't what Christina had hoped for in a landlady and neighbour. She had imagined a chatty soul who would sit on the veranda during the evenings and share her homespun wisdom and her strawberry jam. Patti from the post office was the nearest thing Christina had to a confidante this summer, and their rapport was based mostly on a mutual dislike of Babs.

      When Patti first learned that Christina was renting the old brick farmhouse, a quarter of a mile from the Baxters' new split level, just down the road from the farm equipment dealership, her face lit up. "Bob Baxter is my brother," she informed Christina. "I presume you've met Babs." When Christina said she had, Patti replied, "Enough said," and winked. "She won't disturb your work," she added.

      What work? Christina traced the grain of the wooden table with her finger, trying to ignore the lined pad in front of her. Here in this perfect quiet, this summer solitude, her mind was as blank as her page. How could this happen, when she needed a follow-up book to her first, and when her debut had been so promising?

      Reviewers had said her book was "highly original." These words had once gladdened her heart, but now seemed a challenge.

      Hazen, her publisher, and old pal from university days, had given her the review when they'd last had lunch, before her retreat to the cows and cabbages. Hazen, known as "Haze," was a professor and writer who had recently begun to publish others' works. To her great joy, he had chosen her first book to guide into print, and in so doing, had opened doors for her. It had been thrilling to sign copies in bookstores, give readings, appear on television once, and mingle with his crowd of literary, arty people. Her one regret was that she hadn't met the renowned Lucius Palmateer. He had been scheduled to appear at a literary fair at which she was one of the lesser luminaries, but he hadn't shown up.

      Bearded, bold Lucius had a speaking and writing style that cut to the heart of things. She had been drawn to his image on the TV screen, and had been longing for ages to meet him. Perhaps there would be another opportunity, though, through Haze. Who'd have thought, years ago, when they were in university hanging out together and doing each other's hair that he would come to her rescue later in life, when she was tired of being just Alex's wife and Felix's mother. During their college years, Haze told her that she was wasting her precious inner spark in too much trivial socializing. Eventually, drawn by their different talents and needs, they went their separate ways, but even though the years of mere Christmas card acquaintance, she had never forgotten him. She wished she were in the city right now, having lunch with him on some bistro patio, but Haze and his companion Stefan were whale-watching at Riviere du Loup.

      Haze had been amazed at the success of Christina's book. It seemed that she had articulated the longings of many other women who could not put their desires into words. Or perhaps Stefan's marketing efforts had made the difference. In any case, Haze had to publish four books a year in order to qualify for federal subsidies, and needed a second work from Christina as soon as possible. And she was going to let him down. Poems had to grow inside her, as Felix had, twenty years earlier. Apparently, in spite of being in this fertile farm country, she could conceive nothing.

      Alex's absence wasn't the problem. His initial irritation at her very frank book had now subsided into pride in her achievement.

      "Isn't your husband with you?" Babs had inquired when, earlier in her stay, Christina had made a trip to the new house to complain about the sluggish kitchen drain in the old one.

      "No. He's out of the country on business." (She hoped it was all business.) "Later this summer we're going on holiday together."

      Clearly Babs had imagined that Alex, if on the scene, could have snaked out the drain. She shifted on her thick legs, reminding Christina of some of Renoir's more cow-like women, and picked up the phone. "I'll call a plumber. No sense in asking my Bob to come to the rescue. Business comes first with him too, always has."

      Christina winced at the "too." Alex's very important work for the federal government hardly belonged in the same breath as Bob Baxter's John Deere tractors.

      Now, at her table sipping tea, she told herself that "John Deere" was an interesting word combination. Flip it around and you had "Dear John," the classic beginning of the break-up letter. But no, no ideas came. She glanced at the thesaurus and colourful paperback, purchased on a trip the previous week to a nearby market town. She had bought two other books as well, hoping that Roget and Mining for Gold in the Kitchen Sink wouldn't attract the notice of the clerk. Christina Charlton, the poet, purchasing a "how-to" on poetry. What a scandal!

      She sighed. Instead of resorting to these crutches, she would try fresh air and exercise again. Every day she walked through the village, and usually someone on a back patio or on a front veranda would invite her for a beverage and an hour or two of conversation. The chit-chat wasn't scintillating. The previous evening, in a back yard, sipping a Molson's Canadian, she had tuned out the talk of the purple loose-strife menace and had let her thoughts wander to her son. Happy-go-lucky Felix, now a man of twenty, was working in a paper mill far away in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Her greatest creation was probably bringing happiness to some air-headed little tootsie not worthy of his attention. Could she write about that loss, the weaning-away of son from mother? No.

      These thoughts floated through Christina's head as she strolled down the highway, crossed over and went along Church Street. Patti from the post office was outside her bungalow tying up some hollihocks. She swished her grey hair out of her eyes and greeted Christina warmly."How's the writing coming?"

      "Very well, thanks. Your brother's old house is so peaceful."

      Patti smiled. "It's a bit primitive, but I knew no other life when I was a girl. Apparently it wasn't modern enough for Babs. As soon as Bob started making money from the dealership, she insisted on a new house. Said the brick one was too draughty in winter."

      "It's very comfortable in summer," Christina assured her, as she filed away the information on Babs. Maybe she could try fiction instead of poetry. Haze might look kindly upon some humorous stories of village life, like Leacock's famous Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. Haze always said she had an uncanny ability to capture a person's essence.

      "I'm glad it's you renting the house," continued Patti, "and not that other writer, the fellow who is out at the Hendricksons' cottages. He's very snooty. Barely passes the time of day when he's in at the post office. Says he likes the solitude."

      Christina began to vibrate. Another writer in the village -- and a man? Someone who spoke her language? A heterosexual Haze. Someone to walk with her in thee fresh-smelling fields of clover, sharing words and insights.

      "Can't think of his name." Patti frowned. "He's as stand-offish as Babs. Her only social activity is the church choir, because she likes to show off her voice. Maybe she once had dreams of a singing career, but she was quick enough to accept my brother Bob's proposal."

      Christina half-listened as Patti rattled on. Apparently Babs always had her nose in a library book. That surprised Christina; it was a jarring note in the character portrait she was constructing in her mind. What she really wanted to know, though, was the name of the other writer out at the Hendricksons' cottages. Could it be someone she had met at a literary event? She wished Patti would remember it, instead of nattering on about Babs' pretentiousness: "Pushed their son into university, even though Bob wants him to take over the business."

      Patti might qualify as a character for the updated Sunshine Sketches, thought Christina, but enough was enough. She declined Patti's offer of iced tea, and continued her stroll through the village. Idly she admired houses with gingerbread trim and smiled at cats dozing on doorsteps. She wondered about the Hendrickson's riverside cabins. She had never seen them, but today might be a good opportunity to explore them, to go along this gravel road at the edge of the village, cross the highway and continue down to the bridge. She knew she looked pretty yet comfortable in her jeans, white T-shirt and matching running shoes. She could gather a bouquet of Queen Anne's Lace and purple loose-strife, which would look good on the table, even if she didn't meet the writer. But perhaps she would. Maybe he would be on the front steps of his rented cottage, with his laptop on his knee. She could strike up a conversation, and even ask him home for a meal. She had the tomatoes and home-made bread Babs had given her the other day.

      Her feet crunched on gravel. Looking to her left, she saw her farmhouse roof a mile away. The bridge was sturdy, covered, picturesque like those in the novel The Bridges of Madison County. Then came a curve in the road, a farmhouse in the distance, and nearby, two barnboard cottages, nestled in the trees along the river bank. One had a Dodge Dakota truck parked outside. The doors faced the river, though, not the road. Christina paused, then decided to go down the overgrown lane to the nearest cottage, the one that seemed uninhabited. From its lawn, or from the river bank, she could get a look at the front of its twin, and perhaps the inhabitant as well.

      As the tall grass slapped her legs, she looked out over the river. Last April, when she first chose the village as a possible summer retreat, ice chunks had sped by in the coursing spring run-off, but now there were just a couple of rivulets trickling around flat stones. It would be possible to walk across the river on the stones, then go up the slope to the house, and cross the field to her rented farmhouse. If the writer seemed the man of her dreams, she might suggest this short-cut, in the fullness of time, of course.

      She stood on the overgrown lawn of the empty cabin, pulled the branches of a cherry tree aside, and stared into the yard of the neighbouring building. There was no one on the porch, and the door was closed. The only sounds, other than the rustling of her feet, were the wind in the leaves and the twittering birds. Then, muffled yet distinct, she heard a cry, an "Oh!"

      She put her hand to her mouth. It was all very fine to like solitude, but clearly the mysterious writer was injured, or in pain. Sweeping aside branches and shrubs, she strode through the grass to the cottage. She peered through a window. A pattern of purple and white puzzled her. Whatever it was, it looked familiar, but she couldn't place it for a moment. Then, shielding her eyes, she saw a puddle of white garments on the floor, and two white dots -- white gloves. Then, as her eyes became accustomed to the dark interior, she gasped. An abundance of flesh, limbs entwined, two bodies melded together -- it was all too much.

      "What was that?" someone said. As the two eased apart, Christina gasped again. The bearded face, the broad chest belonged to Lucius Palmateer. Beside him lay Babs.

      Christina ran, like Goldilocks from the Three Bears, like the Redcoats, through the briars and the brambles in "The Battle of New Orleans." These comparisons occurred to her later, breathless at her farmhouse table.

      It would make a story, but how should it be told? A few hours later, when Alex phoned unexpectedly, she didn't mention it. He was back from his trip, had missed her, and wanted to fly immediately to Prince Rupert to see Felix. To her surprise, she felt relieved. "Let's," she said.

      Babs just shrugged when Christina gave her notice, and her key.

      "Some mint tea?" she offered. Christina declined.

      In the fall, Haze took Christina to Lucius Palmateer's book signing in Chapters. They joined the crowd near the fireplace, where Lucius stood at a lectern, and his female companion sat on a chair to his right. When he introduced her as "the woman I love, Barbara", Christina was overcome with a coughing fit, and had to rush to Starbucks, get a drink, and sit down. She had never expected to see Babs Baxter again. Who would have believed that her relationship with Lucius was more than just a little roll in the hay, or that she possessed a beautiful multi-syllable name like "Barbara."

      Before the hour was up, Christina recovered, pulled herself together, and joined the gathering. She greeted Babs like an old friend. After all, it would be nice to be invited, sometime, to the home of the great Lucius Palmateer.

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