You ever look at the way they cut meat in a deli? It’s kind of soothing, the same way bringing your hand just close enough to an open flame is. The butcher, hands as meaty as the pastrami he’s about to cut, will pick up the slab with hairy fingers encased in see-through plastic gloves and slap it into that metal contraption, expertly slicing the meat paper-thin as it whirrs and grinds against the steel safety guards.
I used to love watching it when I was a kid, the noise the machine made and the look on my mothers face because she knew my dad would be excited. She would always say it too, “Your dad’s gonna flip his lid about this!” She would shake her head a little bit, and her long brown hair would swing back and forth. My dad would all but cry at the sight of it when he got home from work and saw it on the counter. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment on College Street, and sometimes we didn’t even have enough money for milk but, every so often, my mother would pull off something like that. She would pick up odd jobs sometimes, doing laundry or typing, keeping every cent in an orange change purse with a gold metal clasp.
She would pick me up from school and hold my hand while we crossed the street and veered left and right through shortcuts until we saw the old yellow DELI sign. At first, I thought she took me with her to teach me a lesson about working hard or saving or something, but I think she just wanted a witness who knew how big a deal it was for her to be in there, for her to spend that kind of money on dinner.
She used to smile at the cashier as she opened her change purse and left a small tip in a jar by the register. It’s not like the new ones they have now, this one had big round buttons that made loud clacking sounds when you pressed them and a loud “Ding” before the change tray would pop out. They still have it, behind the pre-made sandwiches under all the framed celebrity photos on the back wall. I’d like to think this neighbourhood is impervious to change, a time capsule that will remain bottled until I personally decide I am ready for it to be different.
The cashier at the front counter hands me my order wrapped in brown paper and I smile and thank her, pushing my own long brown hair behind my ears before bracing myself against the cold. I pull the door open to a gust of cold air and put my head down while I walk deliberate steps, lifting my feet off the ground and keeping my eyes on the pavement. They say it’s the coldest day in 50 years, and even though it’s early the sky is in twilight and I can see young children running home from the park. There are cracks in the sidewalk from the salt, and I can hear it crunching under my boots.
Some of the younger families have been petitioning to get the streets fixed, but I hope they don’t do it. It wouldn’t fit this place you know? Gleaming, smooth streets. Most of the houses here have been torn down or renovated, but they’ve kept the front porches. In the summer you would find old men clustering there smoking cigarettes and waving to us as we ran back and forth through sprinklers. I wonder if any of them would recognize me now, walking down the street with 800 pounds on my shoulders.
My father still lives at the same address. We tried to convince him to move a few times but the man wouldn’t even let us touch the flowers she’d left on the kitchen table. He just left them there, let them wilt and die for a month before throwing a fit at the maid when she tossed them. It made Andre panic, my brother’s never been good at this sort of thing. I’d been out west in Vancouver when he called me; “Joanie, you need to come home and take a look at him I….I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here. You know, you’re better at this….stuff.”
By “this stuff” of course, he meant sadness. Andre was always a blonde little ray of sunshine, filled with an idyllic hope my mother nurtured every day of her life. He cried after running over a rabbit when he was sixteen years old, I’ll never forget that. He asked my father if we could bury the thing, give it a funeral and everything, can you imagine? My mother did it too, made a whole ceremony in the backyard and let my brother read out an apology letter.
So I had to come. If you ever knew someone like that, you’d do anything to keep them that way a little longer.
I walk almost with my eyes closed, my feet turning left and right with such practised assuredness it almost feels like a dance. Right on Palmer, left on Old Orchard, cut through the park and make a left. Her car is still in the driveway with the pink dice hanging off the front mirror and I can see my reflection in the window. I look just like her, same eyes, same hair, same nose. If I squint it’s almost like she’s sitting in there, looking out at me from the driver’s seat. She always looked worried, my mother, like she was thinking of a disaster, something catastrophically important.
I want to stay here, pretending she’s behind the window waiting for me, but I walk up to the door instead. I don’t know how he stands it here when even the doorknobs remind me of her hands. I tried to prepare myself for the obvious things, before I got here, for what I would remember, the car in the driveway and the clothes in the rooms, but I never thought it would be the doorknobs that got me. I take a deep breath before opening it.
Everything looks the same. I don’t know what I expected, of course it does. The cabinets by the door still need painting, the house still smells like peppermint and lavender and wood. It’s as if the entire earth has shattered, and someone forgot to give the house the memo. I can see my father in the living room, the news is on a lot louder than it needs to be, but I can tell he heard me because I can hear him trying to hide his beer.
I try my best to keep my voice steady, to imitate the way it used to sound when I came barreling through the door after school. Instead, my words feel hollow and clunky, they may as well have been “who died.”
I walk into the kitchen and put the meat in the fridge, thinking it was probably a mistake to bring it here with him in a state like this.
“What are you doing here?”
I stared into the fridge, not ready to turn around, not ready to see him. I could already tell his voice was different, plagued with that same sadness, that pressure of 800 pounds.
“I had a few days off dad, I tried to call.”
I turn around and stare at his feet, not ready to look at him yet. They look ok, blue socks attached to sturdy legs. He’s wearing blue jeans and a button-down shirt, and I feel a little better about making my way up to his face. I know before I do it though, that his eyes would swiftly punch me in the gut.
My father has these big green eyes. My mother used to say they were like pools of the ocean even though they weren’t blue. They were bright and dark and full of mystery, and always tinged with an immeasurable sadness. He looks a hundred years old, his salt and peppery hair seems to have turned shockingly white overnight, eyes nestled in deep dark circles.
“You look terrible.” I said, crossing my arms in front of me. “And I know about the flowers dad. You didn’t have to do that you know, she didn’t know you still wanted them.”
I try not to look worried, try to pretend I don’t notice how big his clothes look, try to pretend like I don’t notice the empty bottles all over the living room.
“I don’t want to talk about this Joanie, you shouldn’t have come here. Get on a plane before they fire you.”
He couldn’t even look at me, couldn’t look at me because I look so much like my mother.
“You know we all miss her, and you know I understand, I understand more than anyone.”
He stayed silent, leaning against the kitchen door and staring out the window, unspoken words hanging in front of us, coating the room in a thick suffocating film. I try to ignore it and put the kettle on for tea.
“You can’t just wallow forever dad, she wouldn’t want that and you know it.”
“Should I be more like you, Joanie? You couldn’t even stay here for one day after the funeral, you practically ran back to Vancouver, don’t think I didn’t notice.”
I try to busy myself, keep my hands moving so I wouldn’t have to look at him again, picking up a dirty vase off the kitchen table.
“Don’t you dare touch that.”
“You want me to just help you keep this place as a shrine to her? Leave the last dish she touched in the sink and keep all the windows shut?”
He steps forward and tries to take it out of my hands and the thing just flies across the kitchen and shatters, explodes into a million little shards that glow under the kitchen lights and it feels good. To have something actually, physically break, to have something irreparably shatter.
We both just stare at it, the tiny glass fragments glistening, absorbing the aftermath of the sound before my dad grabs a broom and starts sweeping up the fragments, making a soft ruffling sound as the glass shards hit the dustpan.
“You know Joanie, I thought, once she was gone, everything would go with her. I expected the shelves to come unhinged from the walls, for the stairs to crumble under me, for this house to be swallowed up and I would just get swallowed with it. Everything is still here……but it’s just not here. It’s like the lights gone out but the lamp is still here, useless. I’m the lamp Joanie, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do anymore.”
The tears came down my cheeks, hot and silent.
“You can sit and eat with me dad.”
I go to the kitchen window and open it all the way, letting the cold air hit my face and fill the room. I pour two cups of tea and set them down before opening up the fridge and taking out the carefully wrapped brown paper and putting it on the counter. My hands move like her hands, taking out the special plate from the back cupboard and setting two places at the table.
I always wanted this place to exist in slow motion, to be outside of movement, to stay the same. I wanted everything to neat and tidy, like in a time capsule. And it did, it was like that for far longer than I ever expected it to be. I take some bread from the breadbox and slice it thick and pile it high on a plate, carefully stacking it piece by piece.
My dad pulls out the chair and sits down across from me, hands clasped together on the table, eyes ringed with red. He sits like that for a while with me, and as we eat I can feel something shifting. We eat in silence until he picks up a piece of the paper-thin pastrami and twirls it on his fork.
“You ever see the way they cut this stuff at the deli? I always liked that, the way the machine moves you know?”
“Yea,” I said, “I know.”