UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
RUTH LATTA

Flowering Crab

Terri Dunn moved to Kingston, "the limestone city", with her first husband, back in the '60s. Ever since she first saw one, she wanted a Georgian house made from the stone for which the

Alfred Sisley
town was famous. Though she and her husband were soon divorced, and though he subsequently disappeared and could not be traced for child support, her yearning for such a house remained. She pictured it, a composite of all those she had seen. It had a fanshaped window over the door, and thick walls to keep out extremes of heat and cold. She imagined a lilac tree behind the house, hollyhocks on the sides, and daisies in the flower beds in front.

Whenever the Single Parents' Group met in an old church hall, built of limestone, she couldn't help but tell whoever sat next to her that her dream was for a "Loyalist" house. Many such houses had been built by United Empire Loyalists who had come to British North America after the American Revolutionary War, back in the 1780s and '90s.

"Dream on!" said her friends. Ninety-nine per cent of the Single Parents were women raising kids on their own. They all had dreams, though. One of Terri's friends skimped and saved to pay the tuition on one course per year at Queen's University. Talk about a slow boat to China! At that rate, she would get her B.A. in fifteen years. Of course, that would be around about the time when her youngest child would leave the nest, rendering her ineligible for further family benefits. There was a method in her madness. Still, Terri didn't think that higher education, at such a slow pace, was the way out of poverty.

It was more exhilarating to be a community activist. Terri quite enjoyed speaking out on issues and getting into the papers. It was fun to rattle the cages of comfortable people who lived south of Princess Street. On one occasion she'd dressed up in her old Victorian-style gown from the 1967 Centennial year, and picketed with a sign that read: "Bring family benefits into the 20th century." The dress was flattering to an ample figure and it caught the attention of TV cameramen.

Her fame, or notoriety, had grown, and she was asked to serve on governmental and advocacy group panels on Poverty. With these invitations came tickets to other cities, to hotel accommodation with all the amenities, and sitter-money for her three kids. She met people from various walks of life, whom she would never have encountered if she'd spent all her time keeping house, as her critics thought she should. Many people she met were charmed by her bubbly, ebullient personality, and many were both privileged and generous. Sometimes they gave her things, such as good used clothes for the children, a bicycle for Bud, a canopied princess bed for Suzie, and a good sofa with scarcely a mark on it, which hadn't fit someone's new decor.

On one occasion, however, she blabbed too much and hurt her elder daughter, Chloris, then fourteen. Terri was afraid that Chloris would get pregnant, like so many of the precocious teenagers in the project, so, after a mother-daughter talk, they agreed that Chloris should be fitted with one of the new intrauterine devices, a copper T, which guaranteed ongoing protection. It was inserted under local anaesthetic at a clinic.

Foolishly, Terri let this personal information slip out at the Single Parents' group when she was talking about women's rights and reproductive choice. She should have known enough to stick to generalities. Some of the mothers felt that she had violated her child's privacy, and was pushing Chloris towards sexual activity.

"Wake up and smell the coffee," Terri had retorted. "Sex happens. It's the '70s." Even as she spoke, though, she was regretting having shot off her big mouth. She knew how fast stories spread.

The next day the whole neighbourhood was whispering. That afternoon, Chloris burst into the house, slammed the door, and locked herself in her room. "Keep away from me!" she shouted through the keyhole. "You're such a know-it-all! You don't care who you hurt!"

It was an abysmal week. When Terri felt at her lowest ebb, she was notified that she was being sued for damaging an antique rose bush during the demonstration at a cabinet minister's suburban home. The decision to picket there had been a bold and controversial move. Now she was going to have to pay a ridiculous amount for property damage. Would she go to jail? Would the Children's Aid take the kids?

She was chain smoking and biting her nails one afternoon when her telephone rang.

"It's Gerard McPhee," said a voice, and she almost dropped the receiver. Gerry McPhee was close to being a household word. He had a growing reputation as criminal lawyer. His detractors, who favoured a return of capital punishment, claimed that he enjoyed freeing homicidal maniacs to roam the streets and kill again.

"I've heard about your antique rosebud plight. I'd like to represent you," he said.

Astonishment choked her. "Why?" she whispered.

"I've followed your career and I admire your spirit," he said.

She agreed to have lunch with him to talk about the case. Though he was bald and scarcely taller than her five feet four inches, and wore a tweed jacket over jeans, he was Prince Charming in her eyes. The wine and his company loosened her tongue and she talked about her life on social assistance.

Gerry shared some facts about his life too. He'd had a five year relationship with a woman who had moved to Ottawa the previous year to work in the public service, claiming that he had no more time for her anymore. "In fairness, I was trying to get established," he explained. He spoke wistfully of his mother, who had died six months earlier. "I never expected to miss her as much as I do," he remarked, in a tone of puzzlement. Terri urged him to talk about her; she sounded like a nice, unremarkable, middle-class, domestic woman.

When he saw Terri to her door, he promised her that her case would never go to trial.

"Oh, I don't know how to thank you!" she exclaimed.

"Invite me for dinner, sometime," he suggested. "I miss home cooking."

True to her promise, Terri phoned him and they set a date. The children were in awe at the notion that a lawyer was coming to their home, and a little afraid, thinking he must be connected with the police. She explained the favour he was doing for her - the meaning of 'pro bono.' As Chloris ironed a tablecloth inherited from their grandma, and Bud tried to find five unchipped plates that matched, Terri talked of free speech, the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial.

"You should be a lawyer, Mummy," young Suzie said.

The children were delighted with Gerry, and he with them. After dinner, Suzie let him colour her map for social studies. Bud interviewed him for his school project and Chloris asked him about the rights of children vis a vis the rights of parents. By nine o'clock, their bedtime, he had them eating out of his hand.

He persuaded the cabinet minister that it was bad for his image to make trouble for a single mother exercising her right to free speech, and the charges against Terri were dropped. Though elated, her heart sank at the possibility that she might not see him again. But this did not happen. Sometimes he dropped in after working a sixteen hour day, and ate peanut butter and toast with her. Every couple of weeks he took them all to dinner. Other times he paid Chloris to babysit so he and Terri could go out alone.

In mid-winter, he and Terri travelled together to a Toronto conference, and shared a hotel room. Terri had put sex on the back burner, as something more trouble than it was worth with the kids still at home. What a happy surprise, to have this opportunity to come alive again!

On the drive home, Gerry left the 401 and turned off into a small town on the shores of Lake Ontario. He pulled up at a Georgian inn of the sort that Terri loved. Turned out he'd made a dinner reservation there. Over coffee, he seized her left hand, and fixed her with an earnest expression.

"Terri, this may seem soon," he said, "but I've learned to trust my instincts. Will you marry me?"

As he spoke he opened his fist and in the palm of his hand sparkled a diamond solitaire. Terri burst into tears of joy.

She spent the next few months on air. True, there were tough moments, like having to resign from the boards of the Single Parents Group and the anti-poverty organization. She felt that she must, since she would soon fit in neither category. To much applause, she promised to be available as an advisor. Even as her colleagues praised her, she sensed that they had drawn away from her. But a twinge of regret could not mar her happiness. She was doing what was best for everyone.

Chloris, for instance, was delighted at the prospect of changing schools. She informed the family that her name was now "Flora", a change to do with a Greek myth she had studied in school. Gerry, looking surprised, said that Flora was a lovely choice, and said he knew the painting, Primavera, by Botticelli, in which the myth was depicted. Terri intended to look up the picture at the library, but didn't have time. She went along with the new name, though. Anything to keep Chloris in a positive frame of mind throughout the move.

For they were moving to a version of Terri's dream home, a limestone Georgian house on the outskirts in a village. Situated on two acres of green lawn and wood, it was a bit of history flanked by two architectural experiments.

On first seeing the new house Terri exclaimed over the antique rose bushes by the door, still bundled up in their protective winter burlap, and a crabapple tree near the patio, surrounded by a patch of snow, but eventually to shed blooms and fruit. There was plenty of space for an oldfashioned garden full of flowers, vegetables and herbs like the first owner, Jemima Pettigrew, had tended.

"It's like Upper Canada Village!" exclaimed Suzie, who had been there on a class field trip.

"The kennel could go there." Buddy indicated a spot by the garage in back. Then, at Flora's signal, the three embraced Gerry and shouted, "Thank you for marrying us."

The wedding was quiet, with just a few close friends, on the patio beneath the budding crabapple. Their festive meal was at a big wooden table that Gerry had bought for thousands of dollars from an antiques dealer. It suited the dining room perfectly, and its beeswax polish protected it from Suzie's spills. Terri, whose mind was all over the place that day, wondered briefly if Lemon Pledge could maintain the patina.

The guests, mostly Gerry's colleagues, were interested in the history of the house, and Gerry, who had reasearched it, was pleased to share the information. The man who built it, Seth Pettigrew, was a farmer, whose wife, Jemima, had borne him ten children. Jemima's diary was now in the university archives. Mostly, Gerry said, it was a list of daily tasks: milked the cow, did the laundry in a tub with a scrub board, cooked a roast on a spit in the fireplace, carded and spun wool, weeded the garden - all this in the morning, he added with a twinkle in his eye. That night, after guests and kids had departed, Terri found, on the four poster bed, a Victorian-style peignoir set of peau de soie and lace. When Gerry came in and saw her in it, he said, "Good evening, Mrs. Pettigrew."

Terri's new life began. She soon got the children established in their new schools. Then Gerry brought home Che, an adorable sheepdog, who loved being groomed and taken for walks. Terri saw these strolls not only as training, but as a way of meeting neighbours.

Except that there weren't many. Most of the women along the road had full-time jobs; only two were at home during the day. At first, Terri had hopes for them. One was a writer. Terri had never heard of her, but then, she wasn't much of a reader. She had written articles for the anti-poverty newsletter, though, and loved to express herself. Perhaps the neighbour could give her some tips on where to publish articles about life on social assistance.

On hearing this request, the neighbour's eyebrows shot up like McDonald's arches. Writing, she said, was a difficult craft and very competitive, very hard to break into. Terri would have to excuse her; she had a deadline to meet.

The other woman at home had an adorable six month old baby. Their paths crossed when Terri was walking Che and met the young mum pushing a carriage. As an experienced mother, Terri would have been glad to give her some tips. But when Terri bent over the pram to admire the little fellow in his Oshkosh overalls, she noticed the mother wincing. As the younger woman spoke of "Mum and Baby Yoga" at the sportsplex and "Tunes for Tots" at the library, Terri knew that this confident girl was not isolated or overwhelmed as she had been when Chloris was little. Trudging home with Che, Terri wondered if the dog would be her only companion.

The flowering crab burst forth in pink blossoms, which dropped a few at a time like confetti on the lush grass. On grad night, Terri posed Chloris/Flora under the tree in her prom dress, beside her date. The young man, who was graduating, wore a well-cut suit and looked gorgeous, though, at seventeen, too mature for fourteen year old Flora.

"Come in for a snack when you get home," Terri told them, as Sean opened the door of his sports car.

Flora stared at her mother. "Mum, you've forgotten that we're all going on the midnight cruise from Gananoque!"

Terri hadn't forgotten; she hadn't been told. A cruise? Was it safe?

"Have fun!" she called lamely, as they roared away. Then she went inside, to the kitchen, where her Brasso polish awaited.

She adored her home, but found it demanding. Back in her subsidized row house, she'd had a Ms. Magazine "Fuck Housework" poster on her kitchen wall, but in a heritage house, that was just plain wrong. She couldn't let the copper pots and pans get dingy, or to allow the kitchen garden to grow up with weeds.

Gerry was never home. He was preparing a defence for a client charged with murder, and was at the office eighteen hours a day. When he came home he fell into bed exhausted. He apologized to her for taking on something so demanding so soon after their marriage, but it would be a case for the textbooks and he could not turn it down. "Besides, I know you can handle everything - you've had so much practice," he said.

No, she couldn't. Often she was in a quandary over new choices, new options. Take summer camp. Instead of a charity camp in the woods, the kids had the option of several pricey, educational summer activities. Terri wanted Buddy to go to Math camp but he wanted tennis instead. Suzie wanted to attend a two week session of a Japanese system of violin instruction for kids, held at the Queen's University campus. Terri felt all at sea, and could have used Gerry's input.

Then there were Flora and Sean. True, Flora wouldn't get pregnant, but she was in love with Sean, and when he left for university in the fall, her heart would break. She'd tried to warn her, to no avail. She might listen to Gerry.

Terri had so much to think about, she never imagined that she would miss her old life, but she did. She invited a couple of her friends for an afternoon visit, but neither could spare the time. 'Jealous bitches!' she muttered.

Then one morning, when she was folding towels, a local reporter telephoned. He wanted to write an article about her, to be entitled: "Whatever happened to Terri Dunn?" Did she get married and live happily ever after?"

"Absolutely!" she declared, as the old bubble of excitement rose inside her. "Come on out and see my new pad."

That night, when Gerry's BMW pulled up at the side of the house, she went out to meet him, eager to share her good news. "That's nice," he said. In the fading light he had stepped on some ripe crabapples rotting on the walk and made quite a production of scraping them off his shoe.

"Don't you ever sweep out there?" he demanded.

"Constantly."

"Why don't you shake the tree and get enough fruit down to make crabapple jelly? My mother used to make it. It's delicious."

'Dream on!' she thought. "Come, have some dinner and tell me how the case is developing," she said.

"Honey, I'm exhausted. After this is all over, we'll go away for a terrific vacation, I promise. Now, come and lie down with me." He went up the narrow stairs to bed. She put his dinner in the refrigerator and went upstairs to find him fast asleep.

The following day, she swept up the fallen crabapples and made iced tea for the reporter. He turned out to be a rookie, a genial youth who said he'd met her years earlier when she first moved into the housing project. He and his mother had been living there at the time. They'd moved about six months later when an aunt in Ottawa offered to share accommodation with them. The result: he'd graduated in Journalism from Carleton University. She congratulated him.

He pressed the "on" button of his tape recorder.

"So," he began, "how does it feel to be middle class?"

Terri was taken aback, but didn't let on.

"You tell me," she countered.

"Actually, it feels pretty good," he said. "It's nice to have money in your pocket."

"You bet! And not to have to stretch a dollar ten different ways. But underneath, I'm still the same person."

As she spoke, she felt a tap on her head. A ripe crab apple struck her head, slithered down her back and spatterd onto the patio. Both ignored it.

"But you're not active in your organizations any more. Do you miss that?"

"I'm busy getting us all settled. This fall I'll be working for causes I believe in."

When he asked what, specifically, she said an announcement would be forthcoming, and that she didn't like to jump the gun. Actually she hadn't a plan or an offer in the world.

As she spoke, a wasp circled her head. It lit on a rotting crabapple stuck between the patio stones.

"I understand that you deserve a rest, but are you content to sit back and let your husband be the champion of the underdog?"

Terri opened her mouth to say no. She remembered Suzie saying, "You ought to be a lawyer, Mummy." Just then a breeze stirred the tree and crabapples hailed down upon them. They hit her head and her knees. Several fell into the iced tea. Some lodged in the reporter's curly hair.

Oh, how quickly the lovely pink petals can turn to hard little missiles, then rot! A tear trickled down her cheek, and another followed. She opened her mouth to laugh, but a sob came out instead. She dabbed her eyes with a tissue, but the more she tried to stop, the harder she wept. What a disgrace! Terri Dunn always had a smart remark for the media. She never cried!

The youth shut off his tape recorder and reached into his pocket for his snowy handkerchief.

"I know how it is," he said, as he held it out to her. "Why don't I come back and interview you later, when you've gotten settled. O.K.?"


Ruth Latta's most recently published book is Memories Stick, (Ottawa, Baico, 2007), fourth in her series of mystery novels. She lives in Ottawa, Canada with her husband and her cat.







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