Ella’s face appears in my window and I think she is a ghost. She’s dead, she’s finally died, I almost keen but her face is a mask of my daughter pressed out of the dark and her hair is wetly sleek against her skull and she is so pale. Even when she was born she was cloudy tea brown but she is white, white, yellowish white, the white of a used cigarette filter.
Her hands come up and she pulls herself over my balcony railing. She stands framed in the patio doors. Her dark jeans and her pink tank and pink runners and her long black hair streaming rain. I’m glad I have no money and the TV is not new but given to me by a neighbour whose son got on with a construction company and she bragged so hard about her new TV I would have liked to have thrown her old one back in her face but she has so little to brag about when she gets a chance she’s punch drunk.
“Nah, Ella,” I say. “You aren’t supposed to be here.”
She tries to open the door and I turn to the phone. I mean to call the manager, a Cree man with a broad nose and crooked teeth who hates Raincouver and misses the sun in Winnipeg but not his ex-wife or her 42,000 relatives. I want him here because Ella backs down from him. She kicks the door until it unlatches. Behind me I hear the rumble of the door on its runners and the noise of cars, their tires humming as they splash rain in the street and I turn and she’s reaching down her pants like a man going to scratch his balls and I forget to dial the next number, lost in the ugliness of that, wishing, wishing she would stop coming here.
She has a tiny gun, an old-fashioned revolver with a sparkly handle like someone dipped it in glitter.
“Take what you want,” I say. Holding your own mother at gunpoint. “Take it and get out.”
I press the button that shuts my phone off and start dialing again and I expect her to rummage through my rooms for things to take but she cocks the gun and she shoots me.
My grandfather used to fire his shotguns on New Year’s Eve and at weddings, doing a little jig then reloading and firing again. My father taught me how to hold a gun, to clean a gun, to treat it like a hungry dog, moving carefully slow. I never had a knack for hunting, but I loved the patience he had when he explained things he loved. I never taught my daughter about guns but she must have learned from someone because she aimed steady and she shot me.
The bullet makes a hole the size of a button (there’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza) above my left hip and I just bought this nightgown and the phone falls and I scream. This is not the searing waves of childbirth or the throbbing ache of a heart attack but a burn as if I’ve fallen on a fire poker and it is stuck in me, molten, and I roll and I grab at my hip and my hand is warm and sticky and my daughter follows me and uses her foot to press my shoulder to the floor and she aims at my guts and she fires again.
Little fish we caught on the docks flopped around the wooden planks; little fish opening their mouths and tasting air, their eyes bulging, their breath rapid. Minnows darted in shadows in the green murky water. So pretty in my hands, wet silver sparkling as they thrashed and died.
Ella kneels beside me, haloed by my wall of grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, black and white photos of my parents, unframed pictures I’ve thumbtacked up around my TV. Her children squint and smile, toothless, then their smiles become studied and their hair is tamed into the lastest styles. Ella’s my baby. She’s my youngest. She sways as if we are on a boat in rough water. So pretty. Her father’s fine bones and arched eyebrows. Her mouth opens and closes and all her words are drowned by my screaming.
Carol visited me this morning. She cleans my kitchen, mops my floors, and washes my linens. Diana, my eldest, sent a nurse to examine my needs and I expected a white woman but got an old, brown granny in a flowered dress that was never in style.
“Aunty,” the old, brown granny said. “I’m going to get you a lady to help you out and she’s going to treat you like a queen.”
Carol and her black-rimmed eyes and stringy hair, her pruney smoker’s lips rimmed in wine-coloured lipstick. Bones moved under her skin like mice under carpets.
“I like honest work,” Carol told me that first day. “Never much good with computers and you need that for anything else these days.”
She has a mean man. My husband Gabe used to flatten me to the floor and kick me still. I know how to read bruises. The tracks of their fight peek out from her scrubs.
She is alone in her head as she cleans and her thoughts make her jittery.
Gabe never laid a hand on the girls. We never did. Diana and Ella never felt the strap or the belt or a raised hand. We saved our rage for each other. When I finally hit him back and heard him grunt in pain, I could not stop. We took each other apart. We cleaned up our mess and did it again the next weekend.
Diana arranges my appointments and brings her daughter and her son and they sit quietly on my couch. They visit for an hour and are gone. They remember my birthday and Mother’s Day. They phone and send flowers. Diana will visit my grave on my birthday and arrange to have the grass cut. She’ll pick out my headstone and hold a little memorial supper. She’ll place a black and white picture of me in a tasteful silver frame and set it on a side table in her living room.
Ella takes down the pictures of her children but leaves all the others. Ella hugs the pictures to her chest and rocks fiercely. Some of the pictures flutter to the floor like confetti. I turn on my side and start to crawl. Ella picks up the gun and I wait. She presses the gun against her temple and pulls the trigger. The hammer thuds on an empty chamber. She cocks the hammer and tries again. A bullet opens her head and sends her sprawling across the floor. Diana would have checked the chamber. She would have killed us on a shower curtain. Even in a murderous rage, Diana would have tried to keep up appearances.
I buried gabe and went to work. I patched cans until my double shift was over and my sister helped me carry my daughters to our car. I buried Gabe and swore I’d never look at his grave again. But I brought the girls to his headstone and we would stare at it and say nothing. Diana would tell people he died of a heart attack. He was pushed from a hotel window. He cracked against the sidewalk like an egg.
We started going out not long after Gabe hopped off his father’s seiner and tied up to the docks. I lay on a towel, sunning myself with my friends. Yellow rain pants held up by yellow suspenders over his tightly muscled chest. He moved like he knew what he was doing but he could barely stammer out two words to me. He paused, lowering a wheelbarrow of gear.
“Hi,” he said.
Such dark eyes in a smooth, tan face.
I grinned. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”
Ella’s girl was sick. She’d missed rent and they were going to evict her and the kids. Her boyfriend was rear-ended by scam artists and they needed a lawyer or he’d lose his licence. She cried because she’d brought her baby to a soup kitchen. She needed a crown; her daughter needed shoes; she’d lost her cellphone; her friend stole her welfare cheque to go play bingo. Ella’s children watched TV in my living room as we waited for her to come home and a couple of hours would turn into the weekend or a week or two.
Gabe and I waited until the girls were asleep to sneak out and have drinks with friends. We’d dance in living rooms and stand around kitchens with music and conversation blaring around us.
I beat Ella with a slipper once, when she told me she was pregnant. Sixteen and in love. He left her and she gave Conner away. I wanted him back but Diana said he had better odds being adopted because he was a healthy baby and he’d have things we couldn’t ever give him. Diana, my little voice of reason.
The phone bleets. It asks me to hang up and try my call again but my limbs weigh me down like anchors. My upstairs neighbour vacuums. I move my fingers, twitch. The woman below me phones the manager if I breathe hard and she picks this day to mind her own business. I wish Ella had been less cruel or more.
“You hypocrite,” she said over the phone, our last conversation. “Someone should have kept you away from us.”
We had to prove Ella was a threat to get the restraining order. I’d never reported the TVs or money or anything, and I felt dirty telling strangers things a good mother keeps to herself. They must have taken her kids away after her phone call.
Ella is crumpled by the TV. We are still. I always watched All My Children, The Young and the Restless, and then The Bold and the Beautiful. Diana bought me a DVD player and her son wrote down instructions in blocky letters: Press open. Put round thing in round hole. Press close. Pick up remote. Play is the button with the white arrow.
The world has shrunk so much. The effort it takes to get to the bank or the grocery store takes the stuffing out of me for hours. I wanted to watch my shows in peace. I wanted to keep this TV. I wanted to wake up and not have her carting out my furniture.
“Mom,” Diana said. “Relax. You’ve been letting her get away with murder. She needs to understand boundaries and respect your stuff. All you are doing is making sure she gets that you are serious and that there are consequences to her actions.”
This appeared in the October 2010 issue.