By Sidura Ludwig
Carol is crouched in her bedroom closet when she hears the front door open. Janelle calls up “Mum?” and Carol immediately wonders what Janelle will be wearing. If it’s dress pants, then she’s only popping in on her way to the clinic. If it’s jeans, then Carol has her for the day. Carol has been counting pennies. She is at 664. When she gets to 700, she will call back down.
Carol is afraid of losing her place. There must be at least five boxes filled with pennies in her closet. She already found two quarters and six nickels in the first box. Janelle is running up the stairs now because Carol hasn’t answered. Her panic reminds Carol of a sudden summer storm coming out of nowhere; like the time Kevin screamed for Carol from the basement. Mild-mannered Kevin who tried to wake the dead.
“For God’s sake, Mum! What are you doing?”
Carol looks up. She’s hunched over. Her shoulders hurt from not moving. She twists her neck slowly to turn her face towards her daughter. Janelle is pale, the lines between her eyebrows pronounced. She’s wearing her black dress pants that Carol told her ages ago were too big.
“I didn’t want to lose count,” Carol tells her.
“You were supposed to have his clothes ready for me.”
“I haven’t done his suits, or the drawers. I need to do the drawers.”
Janelle exhales. “And you haven’t because...?”
“Don’t be smart with me,” Carol says, but she knows from the floor she doesn’t look nearly as stern as she wants to, especially cross-legged, surrounded by pennies.
“Do you have to do this now?” Janelle asks.
“I had no idea your father had this collection. I only just found it.”
“Yes, but you knew for a long time about his clothes.”
Carol moves onto her knees, knocking over her latest tower of ten coins. She says, “Shit,” and Janelle says, “Honestly.”
Carol’s knees burn as she rises. She looks down so that she doesn’t disturb any more of the pennies as she tiptoes out of the closet.
Janelle says, “I told you to have everything ready for me in bags by your bedroom door.”
“So come back later.”
“I am. With Natasha. She’s good at what she does but she can’t prepare the house unless you get it ready first.”
“I’m not the one in the rush,” Carol says. Seven hundred pennies and that’s just a dent in the first box. She hasn’t even looked in the others. What if Charlie arranged them by value? What if the last one is full of loonies and toonies?
Janelle grabs the bag of shoes. She’s pouting. She always juts her chin out when she’s losing an argument. Her chin and her flared nostrils. Charlie used to joke she was like an animal in the wild, always on guard.
Janelle says, “Just hide the bags from Natasha. Maybe in the closet. I’ll take them when we’re done.”
“It’s not that I can’t let this stuff go,” Carol says, but Janelle is already heading down the stairs, the bag of shoes bumping down each step, like not just one but a hundred people running out the door.
* * *
Two summers ago, Carol and Charlie took The Canadianout west. It was supposed to be their first of many retirement trips. She found him one night, sitting in the lounge car at the back of the train. There were windows all around, but they were riding through the Saskatchewan prairie, so everything was deep black. Except for the moon that hung high in the sky like a lone but dim light bulb. Charlie seemed to be watching out of the window, his arm stretched over the back of the seat, reaching in the direction from which the train was riding. He was staring out past his hand, like he had forgotten something.
Carol wore only her nightgown. The air conditioning blew up her legs. She stood with her knees pressed together because she didn’t have underwear on. Even though no one could tell, she still felt indecent, all that cold air blowing up to her crotch.
She said, “You need to come to bed.”
Charlie looked over at her, startled; as if he was not only surprised to see her
just then, but on the train at all. She wondered if perhaps he had been sleeping, holding his head up with his hand, his body rocking with the jerky train. He blinked and then said, “I’ve never felt more awake.”
Carol sat down beside him, placed her head on his collarbone. The train lurched and rocked. He held her side but turned his head back to stare out the window. There was something timeless about traveling in the dark. Like there was no tomorrow and they were being propelled backwards. Ageless.
* * *
After Janelle leaves, Carol doesn’t pack Charlie’s sweaters. She flings them around the room. She tosses them up in the air and lets them fall like dead birds, one at a time. She read once about birds falling from the sky, somewhere in BC, their bodies weighed down and coated in slick oil. Or was that the news report about the gulls and fish washing up on the Pacific shore after a tanker spill? Carol could never keep these earthly tragedies straight. Charlie would have remembered. Charlie would have picked up each sweater she was throwing and quietly explained the correct story to her, like talking down a child mid-tantrum. But in his absence, Carol kicks at his fallen clothes, allows herself to be that angry child, the one who would step on those dead birds just to feel the crunch beneath her feet.
Then, as if she has suddenly heard a noise – like a caw, something snapping, or the sound of a handful of coins tumbling to the floor – Carol turns again towards her closet. She’s willing to bet that whole first box of pennies that Charlie stacked the collection in order of value. She goes back inside the closet and moves the boxes one by one until she gets to the last one. Then she lifts the lid and lets out a laugh so full of weight, glory and self-righteousness that she scares herself. But there she is, that greedy, heartless child, digging her hands into her treasure trove of loonies and toonies; that catch in the depths of her stomach telling her if she isn’t fast, someone (calmer, more forward thinking, practical) will come and take this prize away.
* * *
Weeks ago, Natasha showed Carol a condo she could rent for two years. Carol wouldn’t have to commit to buying until she knew she wanted that lifestyle. Janelle was there too. The condo was in mid-town Toronto, near Lawrence and Bathurst, 20 minutes south from the suburban two-storey detached home Carol has lived in for the last 35 years, for the last year on her own. Janelle went straight to the living room window and said, “See, Mum? You can see my place right over there. The boys can wave to you when they’re playing outside.”
Carol looked out that window and knew she’d be getting phone calls, Can you see the boys? Can you just watch them? Janelle said, “Did I tell you about my colleague, the other doctor in the practice? She’s Filipino. Can you believe her parents look after her three kids full time? She says it’s just part of their culture.”
Carol heard the incredulity in her voice but also the question.
“Yes,” Carol said. “Well. That must be why they’re so good at looking after people. Isn’t your nanny from the Philippines?”
Janelle answered quickly, her voice rising. “She is. I was just saying. It’s interesting, different cultures.”
Natasha walked through the unit, her heels ticking loudly against the parquet floor. A plane flew over. Carol watched it descend in the distance.
“Is that the airport over there?” she asked.
“Oh, it’s quite a ways away. You won’t be bothered by any noise,” Natasha promised.
“I don’t mind,” Carol said, turning away from the window. “I always liked to fly.”
* * *
Carol drives with the boxes resting side-by-side on her back seat. She uses the seat belts to hold them in place. Even still, the coins jostle when she goes over speed bumps, when she makes a right turn onto Bathurst and then again as she follows the curve of the on-ramp for the 407. She had expected a note from Charlie in one of the boxes, a hint, something to indicate what his intentions were for the money. She remembers at the end of the day how he would empty his pant pockets into a dish on their dresser, the coins chiming against the stoneware. Sometimes he kept a pack of gum in there too. Even now, the dish smelled like mint. She gets a whiff of it in the morning, when she opens her underwear drawer. She never thought about what happened to the coins when the dish was full. After all, it was just loose change.
She checks the clock on her dashboard and she giggles. This is just like Charlie. Seizing opportunity. Like after the summer train trip, how he decided he wanted a pair of real train seats to finish off his basement lounge. The walls above them were covered in old VIA plaques he’d collected that read, “Spitting prohibited,” “No standing in the vestibule.” There was a poster of the silver Canadian cutting through the Rockies. The mountains had been spectacular, but when Carol thinks back on their trip, what she remembers most is the contrast between the open, clear sky of the prairies and those fields after fields of yellow canola.
Charlie found Kevin online on some train forum. Kevin worked at a train yard not far from their house. He said he could source train seats from a retired car. When he showed up at the house with the seats in the back of his truck, Charlie danced a jig on the driveway. Carol stood on the front steps with her arms folded. And sweet Kevin smiled bashfully at the ground. He reminded Carol of one of her students from when she taught high school French – a basketball player, quiet, tall, large hands. Helpful. Once, the boy (Was his name Dan? she wonders) helped her move her desk across the classroom.
Charlie and Kevin were such a study in contrasts as they carried those steel, heavy seat frames out of the truck and down to the basement. Kevin’s young muscles bulged with confidence. Charlie’s old arms quivered. Of course once they set the seats on the floor, Charlie would have to sit down to have a rest. He had no business lifting those seats in the first place. It’s no wonder his heart stopped beneath the poster that proclaimed, “breath-taking scenery.”
* * *
Carol walks into the airport with the boxes of coins stacked on one of those luggage carts, along with her blue overnight bag. Her own heart flutters. She should have gone to the bank first and she laughs at herself because what is she thinking? The coins jingle as she pushes her cart. She passes families traveling with carts piled with suitcases. The scene reminds her of Christmas, the faint sound of bells, all those expectations.
There are no customers at the ticket counter and Carol realizes she is not sure how this works. They always booked their travel through an agent, with Charlie making the call. For the train trip, they sat in the travel agency office, pamphlets on the table between them and the agent, a woman who was Carol’s age. The agent arranged their train tickets right then and said, “This is just the start for you. Your adventures together.”
It was later that evening, with the pamphlets spread out on the kitchen table, that Carol took a call from a parent. She could hear his son, the basketball player, crying in the background. Earlier that day, after he helped her move her desk, she found him smoking in the back hall. Even now, she remembers his pale face, his blind panic, that wide-eyed look of wondering: what is she going to do to me?
“How dare you threaten my son,” the father said. Carol felt his venom like a crashing wave, the roar of water overhead. “There are scouts looking at him. You’re just his French teacher.”
“No one is allowed to break school rules. There are consequences.”
“You can’t fucking play with people’s lives!” He raised his voice on “fucking.” Carol felt her throat tighten, like this man had reached through the phone and grabbed her neck.
“I will drag your name through the mud,” the man said. “You report him and I will make sure you don’t work anywhere, ever again.”
Charlie was motioning for the phone while Carol was trying to wave him away. She couldn’t even put a face to this irate man, so she pictured the boy, his forehead scattered with pimples, his back as well. He wore a sleeveless jersey and she remembered noticing the acne on his shoulders as he ran away from her. She was saying, “Now listen...” But then Charlie grabbed the phone and went on about how dare he. Carol was trying not to cry because she didn’t want to be like that boy, dissolving in the background while someone else did the fixing. But she felt her chin jutting out while she pouted, while she breathed heavily through her nose, her flared nostrils.
When Charlie hung up the phone, he pointed at her and said, “Tomorrow you hand in your resignation and we take this trip together as retirees. I’m tired of assholes like him telling my wife how to do her job.”
And Carol said, “Okay,” because it was easier than arguing. It was always easier. She busied herself with the pamphlets. Her fingers shook as she flipped through pages of grey-haired couples, their reflections in the train windows, the sun softening their smiling, worry-free faces.
* * *
Now Carol stands in front of the ticket counter. The agent has long nails, bright pink, and they click at her keyboard, like Natasha’s heels, like the echo in the condo Carol has just realized she won’t be taking. Carol is thinking of the airplane taking off, of it flying over Janelle’s house, the boys running around in the backyard, the nanny on her cellphone not looking up when the plane roars overhead. The boys jumping and waving and Carol waving back through one of those thick, tiny windows, waving over the boys, the roof of that empty condo, of Janelle racing along the highway to the airport when she realizes what her mother has done.
The woman looks up and smiles, “Can I help you?”
Carol says, “Yes. I’m ready to go.”
Sidura Ludwig is a writer living in Thornhill, Ontario, Canada. Her novel HOLDING MY BREATH was published in 2007 in Canada, the US and the UK. She was most recently a finalist in the 2017 Little Bird Writing Contest. Her work has appeared in Canadian and British publications, as well as on CBC Radio.