An excerpt from Cherie Dimaline’s new collection of short stories,
“A Gentle Habit”
all the small things
that collect at the
bottom of a day
“if you have ever drawn up your last plan on an old shirt cardboard in an Eastside hotel room of winter with last week’s rent due and a dead radiator you’ll know how large small things are” -heat by Charles Bukowski
Kissing Miranda was miraculous. He felt blood blossoms bloom and burst on his bones, then trickle over his guts like hot fudge covering soft red scoops of ice cream.
Each greasy curl of his hair, the soft open-palmed embrace of his loose wool toque, the black jeans slung low off his ass; every point of contact was rendered erotic and maternal in light of this kiss. Every part of him- joints, limbs, capillaries, was knotted into this bright connection of skin.
Miranda. He would wrestle polar bears for this girl, nail railroad pegs into his sack to make her smile, though he hoped it never came to that.
She pulled her head back and the kiss was broken in two. The air stung his bruised lips and he opened his eyes with the sudden bewilderment of a hungry infant ripped off the breast. She giggled into a cupped hand and then reached over and opened her fingers around his red ear, stuffing her laughter into his foggy brain; a push of wind over a dusty lot.
His mother’s voice tumbled down from the kitchen window, slid around the corner and echoed in the brick alleyway, reaching them both. He looked up and over and then quickly back to Miranda, as if she would disappear like a morning dream, because she was prone to doing just that.
“Wanna come inside?”
He tried to be discreet about pushing the heel of his hand into the erection that was rubbing against his button fly. “I think we’re eating vegetarian tonight.”
She snarled and curled her fingers up into chipped blue claws under her chin so that she resembled an angry kitten with blunt cut bangs and smudged mascara.
“I need meat!”
She spun on a faded converse and crashed down the alley with as much weight and noise as she could muster, growling and stamping her sockless feet like a girly Godzilla. At the corner she stopped, threw her head back and howled before stomping off.
Dylan waited in the alley for a few minutes, hands jammed in the pockets of his green army jacket, to see if whimsy would carry her back. The wind kicked up and dragged plastic bags and loose newspaper leaves to collect at his scuffed boots. Nothing more. So, he went inside and ate soggy Pad Thai with his mom at the small kitchen table underneath a chandelier constructed of Christmas lights and broken glass foraged from sidewalks and parking lots.
Once he thought he heard her howling outside. He turned and looked out the window that was held open with a Leonard Cohen hardcover to catch the warmed September air. But it was just a passing truck.
“What’s up?” His mother asked, reading the anxiety in her son’s eyes. She washed down a mouthful of rice noodles with thick red wine. The mismatched bangles on her arms slid and clanged with these small movements.
“Nothing,” he dug around in his plate, shoving as much as he could into his face in an effort to leave, to get back to the street where he might catch Miranda walking into the arcade or under a yellow streetlight braiding the suede fringes on her purse.
The air that came in off the water and snaked under the sill smelt of scales and salt. It slid around pages of lovers’ poems and flavoured the tofu on his plate so that he imagined shrimp on his tongue. His mother recently returned to vegetarianism to sync up with her latest boyfriend. He didn’t mind. It was better than the vegan cooking he endured last spring when the yoga instructor moved in for a month. This was before the big blow-out about oral sex that Dylan didn’t really need to be consulted on for his opinion, but which his mother did regardless.
“You hanging around her again?” Dylan’s mom didn’t look up, keeping her face pointed down to her plate to avoid the daggers he threw every time she brought up the girl.
He let his fork drop from his fingers. It hit the side of the plate like a warning bell.
“I’m just asking.”
He chewed his tofu, closing his eyes to try to seal in the image of seafood; claws and barbed tentacles and inset ears. He imagined the weight at the bottom of the sea, the crushing solitude of heavy water on a boney back. Like winter.
As feared, she took the response, minimal as it was, to be an open door and walked right in.
“Nothing good can follow that girl.” When he sighed she responded by raising her voice. “I’m serious! You’ll end up in trouble, mixed up in her schemes, or getting jumped trying to save her skinny ass. I see her hanging around the streets during the day, so don’t even pretend she’s in school.”
“Ma! I never said she was to begin with! Jesus! You’re the last person I’d ever think would be such an uptight narc. Where’s your high school diploma?” He pointed to the kitchen walls, hung heavy with souvenir plates from places they’d never been.
“Exactly!” She pointed a black painted fingernail across the table. “If I am concerned, than you goddamn well know something’s really wrong.”
He pushed back from the table and stood on his grey wool socks, the holes in the bottoms giving him traction on the worn linoleum as he walked to the living room. “I’m not hungry.”
“Dylan, c’mon don’t be like that,” she threw her arms out at her sides, bracelets tinkling along her pale arms. “I’m just concerned, okay? Shoot me for caring about my only child!”
Without looking back, he fashioned a gun out of his left hand and pointed it over his shoulder. Her eyes narrowed as he pulled the trigger and made a small, airy explosion in his cheek.
She shook her head and a mane of tinted red hair tumbled over her wide shoulders. “Thanks.” She lit the Marlboro waiting beside her spoon and knife on the napkin at her elbow. “Goddamn ungrateful kids.”
That night she lay in her king size bed beside Sonny, who was softly snoring and lightly sweating in his jeans with the belt undone. “C’mon Doreen,” he had protested, “just let me make you feel better, take some of that stress from your pretty little head.” Hard black scruff against the new dimples on the inside of her thigh. Dirty fingers squeezing pale, cushioned hips. Tongue and teeth and exhales on just the right spot. Then true to his word, he kissed her sticky neck and moved back to his side of the bed to sleep.
She muffled her cries, a courtesy for the boy in the next room. Because she knew he was awake and brooding in his bed, because he was mad at her and she might even deserve it. She abruptly rolled over, lumping the sheets underneath her legs, her movements shaking the bed so that Sonny’s belt buckle sang.
What the hell did he expect her to do? How could she not say anything and live with herself? Seeing him with that girl was like the time she had come home from her shift at the Corner Bar at four in the morning to find baby Dylan awake and toddling around in soggy Pampers swinging her good chopping knife like a sword. It was the first time he figured out how to climb out of his crib, and the last time she left him alone while after he was supposedly put to sleep for the night. Everything switched to slow motion and she couldn’t get over to him fast enough, all the exhaustion and whiskey kicked out of her like a tooth-shattering boot to the mouth. When she saw the girl smile at him and the glow that resulted in her son’s eyes, “DANGER” screamed through her head and a maternal pang stabbed her in the chest as if she would miraculously start lactating.
She folded her hands between the pillow and her face, the silver skull she wore on her left ring finger settled in the hollow of a cheek. Maybe she was getting old. Maybe she just didn’t get it anymore. Maybe she needed to back off. She fell asleep with images of flashing knives and sharpened fangs hidden in feminine smiles.
When the nail was too short to grip he chewed the skin around it until his fingertip was swollen. Then he put it between his front teeth and gently pushed as if tonguing a bruise. He watched his reflection on the living room window. It made him feel like a little boy, babysitting himself on a Saturday night, all the hours he’d spend studying the swatch of street below, waiting for the familiar figure of his mother. She’d tuck him into his bed before her shift, but he could never sleep. Instead, he would sit right here, working himself up with abandonment fantasies involving orphanages and street gangs of pint sized ragamuffins. What a warm rush of relief when he saw her returning just in time, seconds before hysteria set in. He liked crawling into bed with her – if she was alone – and sleeping as late as they could the next day. “You’re so lazy,” she would tickle him when they got up. “You sleep all night and all day!”
A piece of black lace ribbon draped over the empty curtain rod above the window framed his slight face on one side, a soft touch against the new scruff that roughened his chin, but that didn’t quite reach the smoothness of his cheeks. Miranda peeked around the corner of the Laundromat, so quick it might have been a bird’s shadow on the bricks. He stopped biting and left his finger in his mouth. It throbbed against his lips, making the anticipation even more painful.
Again. This time she lingered to check for him in the window, then dipped back out of the way before her smirk could break surface. He smiled, his lips curving around his red finger like currents on a rock.
He stood up and jumped to the right, then leaned in and peered through the lace in time to see her look again, one pencil-lined eyebrow bent in confusion. Where did he go? Had he been there at all? The thought of dashing down the three flights of stairs and out the side door to rush up behind her crossed his mind. But angry Miranda was a girl no one needed to see, and it usually meant she would disappear and he wouldn’t see her for days, maybe even a week. His fingers would bleed by then. It was better to let her win all the games. He wasn’t very competitive anyways.
Dylan jumped back into the centre of the window frame with his hands outstretched at either side of his head like fleshy, chewed antlers. She laughed and waved, tilting her head to bring him out. Only then did he dash down the stairs.
It was September and Vancouver had slipped out from under the hazy gauze that coiled tightly around the summer nights. He burst out of the bottom door and onto the cracked sidewalk in front of Miranda, his t-shirt catching the sharp breeze, making him look like a skinny flying squirrel. He wanted to run directly into her, to push hard up against the length of her body and let her arms and resistance slow his momentum. Instead, he shoved his hands into his pockets like brake pads and tripped over his Converse trying to slow his walk to a casual pace.
As usual, his clumsiness made her laugh. She walked quickly to him and grabbed his elbow in her own so they became a human daisy chain taking up the whole width of the sidewalk.
“C’mon varmit, we have things to do. Time’s a-wastin’ and the day is almost over!” She walked with exaggerated steps, throwing her other arm out as she spoke, gesturing wildly at nothing. She looked like the maniacal gold miner she sounded like right now, stomping about in her heavy boots, the tall leather rumpled down to her ankles. Dylan’s quiet nature sat nicely as a backdrop for her flashy personality, like black velvet behind a gold string pirate ship hung over a basement bar.
It was ten o’clock in the morning on a Sunday. Well-dressed families on their way to morning service broke around them and spilled off the curb onto the street, drawing spit against their teeth and mumbling un-Christian sentiments at the disruptive duo.
She tramped on, dragging him past the arcade and pigeon park, pausing to yell back at the lady with one arm and two shopping carts, one stacked with old newspapers, the other full of stained clothes pulled from garbage bins.
“Bastards!” The woman hurled at them. “Dirty rotten bastards!”
“At least we weren’t hatched like you!” Miranda stopped, arm still linked in Dylan’s.
“AHHH! Beasts! You are a beast!”
“And you are a menace! A rolling fire hazard.”
“God will take your brain back, he will! You’ll see!”
“Yeah, well, at least we have some. Crazy old bitch!” Miranda scooped a handful of shelled peanuts and dusty coins out of her jean jacket pocket and placed them on top of a faded orange jumpsuit in the woman’s clothes cart, then walked away, screaming over her shoulder. “And I dare your god to try to snatch my brains. I’d punch him in his immortal dick!”
The woman wasn’t listening anymore; she was too busy cooing over her newfound wealth, smelling the peanuts and the nickels all the same.
Eventually, they left the eastside, singing old songs half remembered and detouring to talk to Miranda’s friends shuffling down alleys and propped up in coffee shop doorways chain smoking. Soon enough, they turned onto Robson Street. Boutiques and upscale restaurants lined up against the sidewalk like young soldiers in formal dress with their shiny medals and polished shoes put forward for inspection.
“What the hell are we doing over here?” Dylan pulled his shoulders in tight and tilted his head down, so that he was looking up through the false safety of his eyelashes.
“Because, dahling, this is where all the hipsters hang!” She had changed from a gruff coal miner to a mincing millionaire walking on the balls of her feet as on six-inch heels. “We need to be with our people.”
The street was near deserted at this hour on a Sunday and she broke free from him to skip ahead, bouncing so hard her purse slapped against her bare legs like a saddle. “We are going to live like celebrities today, m’boy.”
“How? I have like, two dollars on me.” He fingered the toonie slung in the linty bottom of his front pocket, ready to hand it over to her on command.
He jogged to keep up, almost losing her when she abruptly turned into a Whole Foods store just before Bidwell Street. The sudden change in temperature from warm to artificially cool, and the shift from street noise to soft jazz and cash registers slowed his pace. He caught up just as she turned up the first aisle, a metal basket in her hands, which she pushed towards him.
“Here, take this. You be the daddy and I’ll be the mommy.”
He grabbed the basket and flushed at his assigned role. “Where are our kids?”
She turned her big, brown eyes on him, “With the nanny of course. Probably down at the waterfront with the dog- Maracas.” She leaned in to peck him on the cheek and then strolled up the aisle, randomly tossing expensive cheeses into the basket.
“Maracas, that’s a crazy name for a dog.”
“Well, he’s a crazy dog.”
He really, really wanted to get into her game, but the increasingly heavy pile of cheese, pate and now assorted organic crackers he was carrying made him nervous. “How are we going to pay for all this?”
“Jeez, you worry too much.” She tossed in a box of pastel coloured macaroons with a nine-dollar price tag. “Hey, these green ones are pistachio flavour. What do pistachios taste like?”
“I dunno, like pissy moustachios?”
She rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue. It was stained purple. She had a habit of eating candy for breakfast, which contributed to the boisterous behaviour she inflicted on the world first thing in the morning.
She had shoplifted their dinner several times before and now Dylan wondered where she planned on stuffing all these groceries; she was only wearing a thin, short flower-print dress and a small jean jacket with shallow pockets and her bag was already full of papers and books and the change of clothes she always walked with. (“You just never know when you’re going to need a change of costume. I used to wear one under the other, like Superman, but then it took too long to go to the bathroom.”)
The round lights above them buzzed efficiently, the butcher watched them from behind his barricade of glass and blood and Dylan was sure that every shopper pushing a small cart or dragging a basket in the crook of their arm was sneering in their direction. Still, Miranda walked up and down the aisles with serene confidence and gathered fresh bread, bottled iced coffee and even a bouquet of cut flowers – oblivious to an audience.
“Is there anything else the kids might need, dear?” She turned to face him suddenly and he almost bumped into her. “My, my, you are so distracted today. Too much late night poker with the boys from the firm, I think. Early to bed with you tonight mister.” She playfully jerked on his collar before throwing a bag of Skittles on top of their haul. Then she slid down the polished floors to the front register, skating in her heavy boots.
The cashier was a pimply-faced teen who was obviously embarrassed by his bright green apron and minimum wage job now that a pretty girl was standing in front of him, unloading her basket. “Uh, did you need some bags today?”
“Why yes, but we don’t want the plastic ones. She grabbed two reusable canvas bags from a hook at the end of the conveyer counter and threw them on top of the groceries. “We need to look out for our environment, especially now with Junior and Delilah to think about, right sweetie.”
Dylan nodded, placing the empty basket on top of the pile at the end of the counter. He was sweating. He eyed the door to see just how far away it was and wondered if she would give him some kind of signal when it was time to make a run for it. He figured he could make it if he threw one of the grocery bags at their pursuers to slow them down.
It took forever for the cashier to swipe each item and place them in the bags. All the while, Miranda yammered his ear off. She even recommended that should he ever consider buying a dog, he go with a Weinemar like they had.
“Maracas is just the best puppy ever. He even listens to the nanny. He understands Pilipino, isn’t that a trip? I mean, who knew a dog could be bilingual?”
The cashier laughed nervously, “That’ll be $97.54, miss. Will that be cash or charge?
There was one brutal moment that hung in the air like a heavy chandelier on a frayed cord. Dylan’s muscles tensed up like a sprinter at the starting line as he waited for the crash. He took stock of his situation and surveyed the landscape.
First, he looked over his shoulder and made eye contact with the guy in line behind them, a thick-necked Neanderthal with a protruding brow and a fresh brush cut who carried two boxes of energy bars with a screaming body builder on the side. He was sure to be a do-gooder, in fact, he looked like some kind of marine or cop. Dylan imagined he would jump at the first chance to help out old pimple-face. “I gotcher back, kid” he’d growl, tackling Dylan to the ground, screaming like the mascot on his boxes. “There’s nowhere for you to go now, maggot!”
Then his nervous eyes sought out the exit, which lay just past a couple of old ladies who were hobbling their way to the door. Dylan imagined his escape. “Jesus Christ, move your asses!” he’d screech, arms wind-milling to clear the way. Then he thought that maybe instead they could be used to his advantage. The marine would more than likely stop his pursuit to catch an old lady or two if they were picked up and thrown his way like arthritic Frisbees.
Dylan looked up, sweat stinging his right eye, just in time to see Miranda hand over a shiny blue Visa to pimple-face. He fumbled with the magnetic stripe, then swiped it. Two seconds swam by with lethargic strokes before the receipt scrolled out and the word ‘APPROVED’ flashed on the register screen.
Dylan had no time to celebrate; he was too shocked. He did notice that Miranda held her hand out for the card to be returned and flipped it over before she signed the name ‘S. Duncan’ across the bottom of the receipt. It was almost a perfect match.
Outside, they meandered down Robson, victory bubbled in their tummies in the form of giggles that popped every now and then. By the time they got to Stanley Park, they were laughing so hard, they had a hell of a time carrying the heavy bags.
Settled under a cherry blossom tree, the ground littered with dropped petals like cartoonish snow, Dylan finally gained the composure to ask, “Where did you get that credit card, anyways?”
Her eyes grew dark and the laughter died on her lips. “None of your beeswax.” It was a light sentiment made heavy with warning. He dropped it.
She spread out a fringed shawl that was jammed in her purse and carefully laid out their feast with an eye for the aesthetic. Miranda unwrapped the cheeses and displayed them in the centre of the shawl as if on a glass platter. Then she pulled out the trays of assorted crackers and circled the cheese. The macaroons remained in the box they came in since it was already so pretty with the lacy doily on the bottom and a light blue ribbon holding it closed; they would just have to untie and re-tie the ribbon each time they removed one. Her purse was used as a suede vase and the cut flowers arranged so that they popped out of the top like a magician’s trunk. The iced coffees were in real glass bottles that they clinked together and shouted ‘cheers’ as opening grace.
They made it last all afternoon, fighting the urge to shove their mouths full and swallow in huge gulps so that they got hiccups and sore bellies. They tried not to rush the process, savouring each morsel as it passed over their taste buds; letting the Brie melt on their tongues, licking the edges of the macaroons like ice cream cones. They smacked and chewed their way through a hundred dollars’ worth of food, taking a break half way through to lie on their backs and watch the clouds pass over them like soft fireworks yanked out of god’s pillowcase.
When the food was finished and the macaroon box thrown in the recycling bin, the pale blue ribbon holding Miranda’s long black hair off the nape of her neck like a slice of blue sky in the middle of the night, she reached for him like a drowning girl on life preserver. He always trembled when she touched him, though this time- and maybe it was just all the food stuffed into his distended belly that evened out his nerves- he felt calm and watchful- guarding her moment of vulnerability like a German shepherd.
Lying across the empty shawl, she buried her face in his small chest and he pulled the rest of her body up against his own. She slid a leg over top of him and he ignored the stirring it caused under his leather belt, but just barely. She reached up and kissed his chin, a small movement that made him smile, because it was so unusual, because he couldn’t imagine her doing this with anyone else. The exclusively of the odd kiss pleased him more than the hand-job she granted him when he snuck her into his house so she could sleep off an oxycontin binge while his mom was having an ‘over-nighter’ at her boyfriend’s.
It was all these small things that held, these little words and tiny gestures that collected at the bottom of their days like the useful junk you can’t ever throw out, the stuff that moves with you in a box, jumbled together, from one kitchen drawer to another, without clear category or designation.
When he woke up she was gone, even the shawl they’d slept on was gone. He had an image of Miranda in a top hat yanking it out from under him as he slept while an audience of joggers and stroller-pushers clapped. He looked around for evidence of her. Nothing- not even a shoe print.
Cherie Dimaline has held many jobs including magician’s assistant, museum curator and executive director. Her creative work has been featured in national magazines and sought after for diverse anthologies. Her first book, ‘Red Rooms’ debuted in Spring of 2007 and received positive accolades from both Aboriginal and mainstream audiences, culminating in its receiving the Fiction Book of the Year Award at the Anskohk Literary Festival. Since its release, Red Rooms continues to find its way onto college and university reading lists and into libraries and schools internationally. She has traveled across Canada and to Australia to give readings and present lectures on her writing. Cherie lives in Toronto, Canada with her partner and their three children. She is the writer in residence for First Nations House at the University of Toronto and is the editor of FNH Magazine.