DRUMLIN." She waited while they wrote it down. "Medial moraine." She looked out over their bent heads. Geography 12 was her favourite course. The students were usually good, and the course itself was such a peaceful one - no wars, no human involvement at all, just the implacable life of the Earth, abiding forever. Welt, she knew the Earth would not abide forever, that the course should probably have a unit at the end talking about acid rain and nuclear winter and deforestation and the dying oceans and ozone layer, that it should sum up by treating the whole planet like history, a kind of nostalgia. It was because it didn't that she liked the course so much.
"Esker," she said.
Someone had opened the door and was gesturing at her. "Col," she said, going over.
It was one of the secretaries, a pale-skinned blonde with a smudge of lipstick on her teeth who looked younger than most of Kate's students. "There's a phone call for you, " she whispered. "It sounds urgent."
"Who is it?" Her hands clenched on the paper she was holding Paul, she thought, something's happened to Paul.
"Oh." Her hands loosened their grip slightly. "Did he say what was wrong?"
"No, he just wants to talk to you. He sounds pretty upset."
"Welt, I can't leave my class now - I'm in the middle of a quiz. Can you tell him I'll call him back at the end of the period?" She glanced at her watch. "It's only 10 more minutes."
"Okay, sure." The secretary sounded defensive. "I just thought you'd want to know, like. Because he sounded so upset."
Kate made herself smile. "I appreciate your coming to tell me."
"No problem." The woman returned her smile, stepped back and closed the door, gently.
Her father. What on earth was wrong now? She thought guiltily of how she had been relieved to hear it was only him. It could be something serious; he could have fallen and broken something. In any case, he must be desperate to have tracked her down at school; he'd never done that before. She glanced at her watch again. just a little longer. Surely a few more minutes wouldn't matter.
There were two more terms on her sheet, but the students would have to rush to finish the definitions of the ones she had already given them, so she decided to omit the last two. One of the advantages of returning the next day was not having to worry about being minutely accountable to the regular teacher.
Five more minutes. Four more minutes. A heart attack: what if he'd had a heart attack?
The bell. She dashed around the room, snatching papers from under still-scribbling pens, and galloped down to the general office. The secretary who had come to her room saw her approaching and handed her the phone over the counter. She had reapplied her lipstick and wiped off what was on her teeth.
"Thanks," Kate gasped. She began punching out the numbers.
It rang three times, four times. Oh, God, what should she do if he didn't answer
"Dad! Are you okay?"
"Those damned Meals-on-Wheels people didn't come. I'm sitting here starving and they didn't come. What do they care if I starve to goddamn death? Eleven-thirty, that woman told me, and sometimes she hasn't come until after 12 -"
"Is that why you called me? To tell me you haven't had lunch?"
" - and now took, it's after two, and where is she? I got a number for her and nobody answers. What the hell good are they, they can't do something so simple - "
"You call me at school, say it's urgent, get me out of my class -" She could hardly speak, she was so furious. The secretary was listening, a little smile fiddling with her lips.
"It's not like I don't pay for this, and they leave me sitting here waiting for goddamn nothing _"
"And what do you expect me to do about it?"
"Oh. Well. Come over when you're done there and fix me something. Doesn't have to be anything fancy."
"You can open a can of beans for yourself, for God's sake."
"No, I can't! Someday you'll have crippled-up hands and you'll know what it's like, even something like a can-opener."
"I have to go. I'm in the middle of teaching. And don't phone me here again. All right?" She didn't wait for an answer, slammed the receiver down.
The secretary came over to retrieve her phone. "Nothing too serious, then, I guess?" she said, with a collusive grin.
"No," Kate said. "He's just trying to drive me crazy, I think. I'm sorry he bothered you."
The woman giggled. "Oh, I've got a grandfather like that. Aren't they something?"
She was late for her next class, a grade 11 Socials, but the students had already divided themselves into their usual groups and were working on their projects when she got there.
She was hardly aware of what she did with them for the next hour; all she could think of was her father, the bloody nerve of him to phone her here and drag her out of class, because his lunch was late
But after school there she was, driving over to his apartment, even though her anger had scarcely abated and Amanda was expecting to meet her for a drink at the pub at four.
She knocked. When she heard him reply, she turned the handle, and the door opened. Not locked, not with the chain on: he was so irresponsible
She froze, her hand clenching the doorknob. Directly across the room from where she stood her father sat in his wheelchair, holding the gun in both hands. It was pointing right at her.
"Oh. It's you." He set the gun on the windowsill behind him.
"What in the hell are you doing with that thing?" Her voice was so loud the woman in the apartment across the hall cracked open her door and peered out at Kate over her security chain.
Kate came inside and slammed shut the door. This was it. This was the last straw. Now he was calling her to come over white he sat here getting ready to shoot her.
"I didn't know it was you. Who knows who it could have been? The apartment across the street got its front doors kicked in last night. I have to be careful."
"Your door wasn't even locked! "
"I was waiting for those damned Meals-on-Wheels people."
"And if they'd come you would have pointed your gun at them."
"I didn't know who it was! I said, 'Who is it?' and you didn't answer.
"I thought you said, 'Come in."'
"I said, 'Who is it?' and you didn't answer."
"That's no reason to threaten to shoot someone! You tell me your hands are so bad you can't even open a can of beans but you sit here with a gun - you want me to think your hands are steady enough to fire a goddamned gun!"
"Yeah, sure they are. It's not hard to fire a gun."
"I'm taking it out of here." She stepped around the coffee table, heading for the window. "I won't put up with this craziness."
He wheeled his chair around faster than she thought he could and snatched up the gun. "Don't you touch it! I know what I'm doing! Leave it alone!"
She stopped, looking at him hunched in his chair pressing the side of the gun against his chest like some desperado. "If you don't give that to me don't expect me to ever step through that door again."
"It's mine! I know what I'm doing!"
"Then I'm leaving. I'm not putting up with this." She turned and strode to the door, her coat flying open behind her and catching on the coffee table. She jerked it free, not caring if it tore. Because this might be the time she would finally be able to do it, to walk out and not come back.
"Aw, Kate. Aw, Kate."
She stopped, didn't turn around. "Then give me the gun."
"Aw, Kate. Come on."
"No. I'm leaving." She put her hand on the doorknob.
"Just open a can of beans for me before you go, then. That's all. Is that too much to ask? just open a can or two. So I can have something to eat. I haven't had anything to eat since breakfast. Come on. Is that too much to ask?"
So she gave in. She found a can of beans and another of creamed corn in his cupboard, and she dumped them into pots and warmed them up. Her father sat in his wheelchair watching her, holding his gun in his tap. Neither of them spoke. When the corn began to bubble, Kate poured it and the beans onto a plate and set it on the counter beside the sink. She poured him a glass of milk, too, from the refrigerator, which was surprisingly well stocked. She restrained herself from asking him to identify the blobs that looked like lumps of green Vaseline sitting in a saucer on the top rack. She set the milk on the counter, picked up her purse on the other side of it, and walked out of the apartment.
Oh, it was almost funny, she thought as she was going down the stairs. In a grotesque kind of way.
When she pulled into the parking lot at the pub she saw Amanda's car was already there. It was easy to recognize the only green 1960 Chevy in the lot. Amanda had bought it 15 years ago when the car was cheap and tacky, and she'd kept it long enough for it to have become expensive and tacky. The 1990s, she said, were made for cars like hers - she had named its two enormous fins "fins de siecle."
Kate pulled open the heavy door of the pub and a blast of rock music and cigarette smoke struck her. The bar was a large one but able to feign a certain cosiness with poor lighting, a few booths strewn against the walls, and a near-capacity crowd, mostly of businessmen with their ties pulled askew stopping by after work. The place had a nautical theme, with pictures of ships and sailors on the walls and several huge anchors embedded in the floor at just the places people seemed most prone to stumble into them. Kate had met Amanda here quite often only because it seemed equidistant from the schools they most often taught at.
Amanda had almost given up waiting for her. "About time!" she shouted when Kate came through the door, making the people at the next table stop talking to stare at them both.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Kate said, dropping into a chair. Amanda had two empty glasses in front of her and was starting on a third, but Kate knew this was not evidence of the length of time she had been waiting as much as of the speed of her drinking, which could be formidable if she was depressed.
"And happy birthday," Kate said. Amanda's birthday had actually been yesterday, but she had said she wanted to spend the day alone mourning her misspent youth so they'd agreed to meet today. She was 37. Kate was a year younger.
"Yeah," Amanda said dolorously. "Happy birthday. I used that in English 12 yesterday as an example of oxymoron." She lifted her arm to wave at the waitress, almost slapping a passing man in the stomach. "Rum and Coke," she shouted at the waitress. "And another keg of beer for me."
Kate gestured at the empty glasses. "This looks very celebratory."
"Celebratory. Fuck. I just wanted something to pick me up. Besides pallbearers."
"You are in a good mood."
"I'm in a rotten mood. Of course when you're in a rotten mood for 37 years they call it your personality." She sighed lugubriously. "I got a gift from my sister in the mail today. A travel alarm, and she wrote on its face in red felt pen: your biological clock. Bitch. If she meant it as a gag gift, well, I gagged, all right."
"Oh, I'm sure she just meant to be funny." But Kate was thinking, yes, that's pretty nasty all right. The sort of thing her father would give her if he were clever enough.
"Then there was this guy in the staff room who when he heard it was my birthday said, 'What do people over 35 use as birth control? and so I said, 'What?' and he said, 'Nudity."'
Kate laughed. "Well, that is rather funny, you must admit." Amanda gave her a black look. "In a cruel kind of way," Kate added.
"Yeah, well. I guess I have to face it. The best ain't yet to be. Age has withered my infinite variety."
"You're not getting older; you're getting bitter."
"That's good, Kate. You can sell it to the school board for their Hallmark line of teacher evaluations."
"Speaking of teacher evaluations, how has Jesus Christ been shaping up?"
Amanda poked her forefinger into her mouth and made a retching sound. "He wants to destroy civilization as we know it, I swear." The waitress brought their drinks, and Amanda took a big swallow of beer, leaving a fringe of foam on her upper lip. "He walks up and down the hallways during classes writing things down on a clipboard. I think he's compiling secret files on us all for the Second Coming, a CSIS-agent-for-Christ or something. The man is so anal retentive he has shit in his bowel as old as he is."
Kate groaned, took a sip of her rum and Coke.
"No, really. Actually, a lot of us carry around old shit. It hardens and coats our colon walls, like plaster. My doctor told me. Gross, eh?"
Kate made a face. "Thanks. I needed to know that. Well, aside from Jesus Christ, how was your day?"
"Oh, the usual. But when I was walking back to my room after lunch I heard some kid say, really clearly, as though he wanted me to hear, 'She's a Chink. 'Nice, eh?"
"Oh, well, these kids...." Kate rolled her glass between her hands and fixed her eyes on it. She had no idea what she should say. She had known Amanda for so long she never thought about her race, and when Amanda mentioned it Kate was always a little surprised. A few weeks ago Amanda had told her that she'd gone out with a guy who had called her "inscrutable," and it took Kate until the next day to realize why Amanda was so annoyed.
Amanda was actually only half Chinese - "my better half," she'd say. Kate had once met Amanda's mother, whom her father, a retired farmer who had died 10 years ago, had more or less ordered from a Taiwanese catalogue. A small, timid woman, she seemed to look at her daughter in perpetual wonderment. As she sat beside Kate listening to a passionate argument between Amanda and her brother about something trivial, she said suddenly to Kate, in her softly accented voice, "I had hoped for a quiet, obedient daughter." Amanda stopped arguing and gave her mother an impatient look. "On the other hand," her mother continued after a moment, "the world may have enough quiet, obedient daughters." Kate had laughed, relieved. Perhaps Amanda was more like her mother than it had first seemed.
"Ah, well," Amanda sighed now. "It's all just God's little way of testing me. Not room for all the Asians in heaven, you see. just the ones with no yellow marks beside their names on J. C.'s clipboard."
"You should start wearing that button again."
"What butt - Oh. That button. Yeah. I wonder if I still have it."
The button they were talking about was one Amanda had worn on her coat lapel a few years ago: it had made Kate gasp at first, because it looked like the racist button that had become popular, the one showing three men of different races looking down threateningly at a small white man, with the caption, "Who is the real minority?" Except that on Amanda's button, Kate saw when she looked more closely, the three men had been redrawn into women looking down at the white man. The caption was the same. "I mean," Amanda had said, "I just wanted to get the facts right."
Kate began to cough. The smoke in the room was, as usual, getting so dense it looked as though a fog bank had moved in. Her clothes would reek of it for days. Amanda waved her hand dramatically to clear the air in front of her, but of course none of the smokers paid any attention.
"I hope this sweater can be washed," she said, picking at a speck of ash on the sleeve. Kate knew this was a hint to take notice.
"That's new, isn't it?" The sweater was elaborately beaded, an attractive abstract design, but pushing the edge of excess. Kate was sure it was expensive. Amanda had a habit of swinging from wild materialism - "affluenza," she called it - to the most miserly hoarding, the latter in preparation for what she was convinced would be a barbaric future, stripped of social programs, where only the rich would survive. Amanda had, Kate thought, a kind of financial bulimia.
"Yeah. It's pretty, isn't it?" Amanda stroked the beadwork. "It cost the earth. I'm so poor now I can't afford to shit. It'll be just water and beans for the next month, I can tell you."
"Beans. What's wrong with beans?"
So Kate had to explain. She had never realty told Amanda about her father, just that he was there, a generic sort of parent, getting older and needing attention, nothing that had sounded unusual.
"You're not kidding?" Amanda said. "He really has a gun?"
The waitress brought them another round. Kate poked her straw at the lump of ice and then drew up a large mouthful, holding it for a moment on her tongue before she swallowed.
"I'm afraid so."
"Well, what are you going to do?"
"I don't know. This is just so typical of him. He's driving me crazy. I keep telling myself this is it, I just will not have anything more to do with him, but next day there I am, letting him manipulate me again."
"Well, yeah. You can't just pretend he doesn't exist. He's your father."
"That's just it. He's not."
"What do you mean, he's not?"
"Not my father. Not my real father.
She hadn't intended to tell her that. She had never told anyone, in her whole life.
What her mother had given her, in an envelope, wrapped in tissue, on her 17th birthday, and what she kept pressed between pages 23 and 24 of her high school yearbook, was a picture of her real father. He had been killed in a car accident, and Kate's mother, pregnant and terrified, had married Arthur O'Rourke a month and a half later.
"Don't you think he might have known?" Amanda was leaning across the table, sucking the story in greedily. "Or guessed?"
Kate shook her head. "I considered that. But I don't think so. He was too..." She drummed her fingers on the table, looking for the right word. "...limited, somehow, not to have let it slip if he knew. He would have used that knowledge, if he'd had it. There's nothing about him that's at all subtle, you see." She finished her drink, set the glass down hard on the table. "The only times he would say anything good about me was when he thought it reflected on him, because I was his, his genetic offspring. His brother had all these moronic children, and Dad would brag that his side must have inherited all the brains in the family. It made me sick."
Amanda leaned back, pressed her palms together, and balanced her chin on her fingertips. Kate recognized this posture: Amanda was going to Analyse The Situation. Why had she told her any of this? She poked her straw gloomily at the sliver of ice in the bottom of her glass.
"Maybe that was his only way of telling you he was proud of you. Men of that generation were not noted for their articulateness. Maybe you're being too hard on him."
"He's a selfish and spiteful man, Amanda. You don't know him. I haven't told you anything about what it was like with him, how he treated me and my mother. She might as well have been his servant. And he undermined everything I ever did. He loathed Paul, who was hopelessly good to him. You don't know anything about it."
You don't know anything about it. It was like telling Amanda (Amanda, of all people!) to mind her own business. Kate hadn't meant it like that, but she couldn't bring herself to apologize. They sat there in silence for a moment, the noise of the pub rushing in as though filling a sudden vacuum.
Amanda dropped her hands onto the table, leaned forward a little. "Did you ever wonder," she said, "why the two men in your life are, shall we say, men manques - you know, men-with-something-missing?"
Kate stared at her. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Amanda shifted a little in her seat. "Just an observation. Both Paul and your father are invalids, neither of them offering you much but misery, yet you seem to be devoting a lot of your life to their caretaking."
"That's not fair." Kate felt suddenly so angry she could hardly speak. What right had Amanda to say that? She knew it would be upsetting. It was one of her little defensive tricks, to make some personal comment she would profess was entirely innocent when she meant to be hurtful.
Kate pushed her chair back abruptly, reached behind her and pulled her coat across her arm "I have to go," she said stiffly.
"Wait. Jesus. What's the matter? You don't have to go yet." Amanda, Kate was gratified to see, seemed genuinely dismayed.
"I have to go. See you." She turned and walked quickly away, trying not to hear what Amanda was calling after her. A drunk stuck out his leg in front of her, burped, "Hey, chickie." She stepped over him without breaking her stride.
This is an excerpt from The Power of Refusal, a novel-in-progress by Leona Gom.