Today is her fourth day at the store. This means something. The first time she saw the Help Wanted sign behind the window, the job didn’t look that difficult. It was not a big post office, only a small outlet at a stationery store in Spadina Village, with one sales person, one cashier, and that stout grey-haired woman, always busy, grim-faced at the dimly lit back of the store. She’d gone to the outlet before to buy stamps for resumes she had had to mail or for postcards to friends back home. She applied in person, sent her resume, called several times to follow up until last weekend she got a call from Olga, the stern stout woman, who’d convinced her boss that a mature woman could be more helpful than a careless adolescent. She is sick of the part-time job she has at La Senza. If she survives this week of probation, she’ll get out of hell.
Hell is managed by Helena, the store manager: tall, slim, blonde and beautiful, though with a slight hunch. To be fair, she admits that hell is not hell just because Helena is bossy, or arrogant, or a foolish narcissist. What really annoys her is sorting panties and bras, or competing with other sales persons to grab a customer just to add a dollar to her daily wage, or mechanically smiling at customers and cajoling them into buying more and more. When Helena eats her lunch time sandwich in the stock room, she amuses herself by repeating, “I’m a genius!”, imitating her talking doll. Observing Helena, she says to herself in the same tone of voice, "I was a manager!"
Now her past looks as external as the sidewalk she steps on; something detached, like the edge of the ravine bordering the sidewalk. It’s outside herself, around her, sometimes at her back, ahead of or beside her, sometimes invisible, as if it were her shadow. No wonder others ignore her shadow. She is not concerned about that, either. But she knows that the past, shadow or not, might be more than a past; maybe it’s the entire present, the whole future, a unique space of time. She lives in a Jewish neighbourhood, and sees Hasidim cocooned in their past. Hers had been torn apart by others, and abandoned by her.
She’s reached the bridge. Before crossing the street and making her way towards Spadina Road, she lingers for a while to watch the vast ravine broaden beneath the surface of daily fuss. It’s in the full colours of the season’s splendour, yet the wind’s chill makes it unwelcoming. She recalls that lazy summer day when she went there for a walk with her husband and her son. They were new to the neighbourhood then and the ravine looked like the countryside. Thrilled at the newness of their surroundings, they enjoyed their meander around a ravine so vast and open. They went up to the hilltop and watched the pretty scene below. Then time began to pass rapidly, and left them desperate. Her husband started to regret what he had lost. Her son, unable to communicate with his classmates, became isolated at school. She found out that a survival job would be the only kind she could get. One day on her way to work, when she wanted to cross the ravine, an unleashed dog ran towards her barking angrily. There was no sign of the dog owner. She ignored it and kept walking; the dog kept barking. At the entrance both she and the dog stopped and looked at each other. She was afraid of it; what she realized was that the dog had barked at her because she was a stranger trying to invade its territory. She was a stranger; she didn’t think of herself that way but the dog noticed it at once. Since then she has approached the ravine many times, but never dared go in.
Olga is busy at the counter. The small shipping room is full of bags and boxes. Olga has assigned her to organize shelves, replace parcels and packages according to the date they were received, check delivery orders, review supply lists…. She doesn’t doubt that she can manage all these tasks. She’s already caught a discrepancy in the accounts and made corrections. Olga didn’t give her a word of praise, but surely she noticed. What makes her most anxious is the possibility of having to work at the cash register; she’d certainly be called to do that sooner or later. Yesterday she was trained to do it. She’s also worked with the register at La Senza; she knows she’s good enough. Her weakness is her halting English. That’s why she’s afraid of the customers. Olga knows well that she’s a newcomer, with little experience in customer service. Does she expect her to respond to all the customers’ demands promptly and appropriately? Would it be bad if she asked a customer to repeat an inquiry? Weren't many of these customers once newcomers too? Yesterday, Olga had to go out for an hour and left the outlet to her. Everything went well. It was a quiet day though, and by chance customers had simple demands. From time to time she casts an eye over the queue cautiously and her anxiety rises while she thinks how great and unpredictable the range of these people’s demands might be. She’s proud of her good memory and she spent a long time last night memorizing the rates and prices of all possible services. But this doesn’t guarantee anything.
Nothing is guaranteed. This is the key phrase of her new home--the first she heard, the first she learnt. Her husband doesn’t like to hear it. He is desperate for guarantees, not only of objects, but also in their life here. He agreed to emigrate, not only for a guarantee of survival, but for success. Maybe she had the same drive; yet she soon realized that it was nothing more than a mirage. To be a mail clerk is a very modest ambition, so tangible, so possible – if only she survives today.
Olga calls her to stand at the cash register. She flushes with anxiety as for a moment she senses Helena’s tone in Olga’s voice. She summons her courage and confidence. She smiles at the first customer, a hunchbacked old woman with hearing aid, who declines to return her smile. “She doesn’t like to see me at the register instead of Olga,” she says to herself. Olga watches her closely. Her heart beats so madly that she thinks even deaf people can hear it. Then comes the next customer, and another and another. At the end of business hours she feels more or less comfortable with customers, as if they were giving her the benefit of the doubt. Thank God, she hasn’t made a big goof. Once or twice she asked for clarification, once or twice she hesitated over the right price, once or twice Olga had to intervene and give her assistance or advice. Not too bad for the first real test! Now she feels her muscles relax, her forehead no longer sweating, her heart back to its normal rhythm. Thinking back to the days when she was advisor to a government minister, she discovers that this present humble success gives her more satisfaction than all her previous achievements brought. Olga interrupts her thoughts by calling her to the shipping room.
“Take a seat please,” says Olga.
She tries to look as dignified as Olga expects a mature woman to be. She starts to think about how best she can express her appreciation.
“My customers are local. Most of them are seniors. They’re not patient enough to stand someone who’s not quick with change. No doubt you wanted to be accurate, I’m happy with what you did in the back and even with the customers, but this job requires experience. You looked clumsy when you made change …”
“But Olga…” she says in an unfamiliar pleading voice.
“I’m sorry…” Olga says, and her voice sounds unfamiliar too.
Then she hears more words turning in a vacuum. On her way home, hurrying by the edge of the ravine, she turns her eyes away.
She’s early enough to get an early number. All she has to do now is find a seat and wait. One end of the queue reaches the desk of the smiling elderly woman giving out the numbers; the other end goes out of the basement, even past the steps and out onto the sidewalk of the quiet secondary street. People are still coming to join the group, alone or in company of pets, children, or partners. Such a crowd on a February day at a branch of the food bank in a wealthy neighbourhood raises questions. But she’s reluctant to find herself becoming an economic analyst again. For ten years she had analyzed her country’s economy without knowing what was happening around her, in her office, in her home, in the city where she’d been born and brought up.
She heads for a drafty bench not far from the entrance. She sits beside a little girl and holds her empty backpack in her lap to make room for the girl, who shifts over while taking care of a baby in a stroller. Here she can observe the people, those who are inside, hanging around the room, chatting, waiting in the line, or standing in a corner sipping their free coffee; and also those who are rushing in to flee the cold and grab their canned goods. Though she doesn’t know their names, their faces, bodies, and gestures are as familiar to her as those of her family. Once in a while a new face may appear. The first time or the second it looks strange, then, whether she cares for it or not, it joins the other faces in her new family album. These people are a clan to which she feels she belongs without having to perform any rituals. Occasionally she exchanges information or a few words about the weather with one of them; and most often simply a pale smile or a gesture of deep sympathy. What she has in common with them goes farther than economics. They are all focused on the necessity of food -- always the same food, the same brands and quality, the same donated surplus products approaching their expiration dates. Ironically, she realizes that all the fine food she shared in the past with the upper-class never created as strong a bond as she feels with her companions and what they’re given here.
Maybe this is one of those things she will tell her husband this afternoon. She looks at her watch. This morning, before leaving home, she asked him to come to the church.
“I have to take the car to the garage. Didn’t I tell you it failed the emission test?” he said.
She knew that, and also that he hated to go to the food bank. A few months ago, he had barely agreed with her when she’d argued that they could save food expenses by getting what they needed from the food bank.
“Listen, I’ll do it. I'm not ashamed to say we’re poor,” she’d said, expecting to hear back, “You’re not ashamed to ask for welfare either.” But he had said nothing.
“I have to volunteer in the mornings and study in the evenings to get a degree. I want to find a job as a social worker,” she’d continued.
She still recalls how he flushed, almost choking, when he heard about her new resolution. She was scared for a moment.
“You’re crazy! You’ve forgotton who you were,” he muttered hopelessly.
“I don’t care about the past,” she said to herself. She was kind enough not provoke him more by saying it aloud.
“I’ll be done by 5. I don’t want to walk home alone,” she gently said to him this morning. This wasn’t true, though. She wanted a chance to talk to him alone. Perhaps in the ravine; after all it was a short cut home. She wants very much to go there again, in cold or pleasant weather, alone or in company. It’s been a while since she started planning to do something for her unhappy husband, for their son who was sick of so much conflict at home, for herself who felt miserable seeing them suffer. She began by setting short- and long-term goals for herself. She replaced a full-time survival job with a part-time one, registered in a university program, began to volunteer. Nothing seemed to her more reasonable. But it hadn’t caused their family life to improve. Indeed, it seemed to make things worse. Her husband had to keep working hard as a courier, a job he hated, to pay the rent. His background didn’t serve him well here. He didn’t like change; he did like a life of leisure – having to make a living was vulgar.
The baby in the stroller bursts out crying. The little girl starts to make funny faces to distract him. Their mother is now at the box of treats, trying to find something good. Occasionally they are lucky enough to get such bonus items. Mostly, luck is a combination of first-come, first-served, with enough cleverness to wangle something extra. With a victorious smile and Smarties the mother returns to her kids. She passes the Smarties to the girl, digs into her big purse, finds the pacifier, and thrusts it into the baby’s mouth. He rejects it and starts screaming. The woman impatiently keeps thrusting until the priest who updates clients’ profiles calls her over. The little girl crunches the Smarties cheerfully, and keeps making silly faces for the baby. Then she moistens a red Smartie with her tongue, rubs it on the baby’s lip, tosses it into her own mouth, and bursts out laughing.
“You’re a very smart girl,” she says, smiling. The girl turns and looks at her as if she’s just noticed a stranger beside her, and then giggles.
“My brother’s very cute, isn’t he?”
“He is. Good for you!” Before finding more words to keep the thread of conversation, her number is called. She rushes toward the counter, thinking about words not to say to the girl but to her husband.
Putting the stuff in the backpack that once belonged to her son, she reviews the items to see if she’s selected what they needed most: a bar of soap, a box of spaghetti, tea, sugar, flour, powdered milk, canned corn, rice, and… “Oh! I could have grabbed Smarties for my kid!” she whispers, remembering how her son’s eyes shone whenever he’d seen a bag of those magic beans in his parents’ hands. “Isn’t that what we needed most?” she thinks. “If he’s my son, he needs luxuries, not necessities!” she remembers her husband liked to say. She looks at her watch. She has quite a lot of time before meeting her husband at the streetcorner, far from the side door of the church. As well as her purse and the backpack, she has to carry a heavy plastic bag. She places them on the bench close to the door. The girl has moved the stroller to the other side of the room where there is a small space for children. She sits, trying to concentrate on what she wants to say. She might start saying that she’s never ignored him, his wishes, his preferences; that she knows what he’s doing now goes against his will and nature; that she hates to see him as the sacrificial lamb; that … “ But this sounds mawkish,” she says to herself. She would say that both of them were responsible for their misconceptions and plans. They used to overestimate not only their privileges, but also their ideas and abilities. It was simply luck -- nothing to do with what they deserved -- that they once had many things and then had nothing.
They came here to flee an artificial paradise that had suddenly turned into hell. They had brought their savings to start a business and they had failed. “And this sounds like a lecture,” she thinks. Maybe she’d better get to the point right away as usual. But what’s the point? She doesn’t know. All she knows is that they can’t tolerate this mess anymore. She also knows she’s ready to do whatever is reasonable and practical. Like what? Well, one of them should work hard so that the other can get a degree right for the job market, and this one can be him, if not her. She doubts he’ll accept this suggestion, but it seems the only way to get them untangled. She breathes a sigh of relief.
The sidewalk is slippery. When she joins her husband, they walk slowly; sometimes they’re shoulder to shoulder, sometime he’s one or two steps ahead of her, bent slightly by the weight of the backpack. His worn boots are still in shape. “Good boots!” she says.
“Good bargain in Good Will!” he sneers.
She wonders why he hasn’t as usual suggested taking the bus or even a taxi. “It’s good it’s not windy,” she says to change the subject.
“It’s going to snow soon,” he says.
He doesn’t sound impatient or grumpy. It’s the right time to reveal what she has in mind. Yet she doesn’t know how to begin. It’s not easy to find words while you’re walking on a slippery surface. She passes the plastic bag over to the other hand. They reach the intersection and stop at the red light. “The ravine is the best place,” she thinks. He turns his head. “Let’s go for coffee,” he says with a smile.
“Why not? I’m going to invite you, Madame. What’s wrong with that?”
“Well, nothing, but. …” she doesn’t find any reason, “but I wanted to invite you to the ravine.”
“Oh! I won’t reject such a wonderful invitation once we fuel ourselves with hot coffee.”
“I already had it.”
“OK, you enjoyed the free coffee of that damned place; now enjoy your second cup.” He heads for the Second Cup in Spadina Village, “I want to talk to you.”
He’s sipping his café latte in silence. “You forgive my little treat, don’t you?” he breaks the silence.
“Is that what you wanted to say?” she’s angry that he’s read her mind.
He puts his cup down. “Remember those golden days when you spent money carelessly?”
She gazes out the window, trying to be calm. “It’s getting dark,” she says softly.
“I quit my job.”
She tries to say, “We’re not going there,” but she cannot speak.
“I called Mother and asked her to send me a ticket to go back home.”
“In few minutes we could have reached the path,” she says to herself. A brief smile crosses her face. She drinks water.
“Over there at least there is a roof over our heads I don’t have to ruin my life for. Right?”
She nods, trying to recapture her vanished smile. The path would have led them quickly to the snow-covered slope.
“I know you don’t want to go back, maybe just because you’re too proud to accept it was all a failure.”
She stares at him. They could have slid down over the smooth snow and seen how rapidly the white faces of the trees passed them.
“Or you’d like to develop a thick skin. I’d rather take care of my delicate skin.”
Down there, they could have stood and looked up at the faraway hilltop.
“Well, consider me an asshole, if that helps you.” He finishes his coffee.
They walk in silence; sometimes shoulder to shoulder, sometimes the man one or two steps behind her.
“Still closed,” she says as she parts the dark cotton curtains. The window opens across from another apartment window in the building opposite, a sooty brick chimney, and a narrow patch of bright blue spring sky lined with loose strands of cloud. “Close those curtains!” her son groans and rolls over to the other side in his bed.
She opens the widow a little to let fresh air in and turns to her son, “It’s nearly noon….” Crooking his body, he has become fetal. The midday light reveals their dull room divided by a partition into two zones: one has a sofa, an arm chair, and an overloaded bookcase for her; the other a bed, a computer desk, a rocking chair, and a TV set for him.
“I’m going out shopping. You hear me?” she asks gently.
“Ummm!” he drags the pillow from under his head to cover his ear.
When she returns, he’s watching television and playing a computer game at the same time. “So, my early bird is out of bed!” she says. He nods and waves. “Good progress!” she mumbles and rushes to the small stuffy kitchen, her corner, to do the dishes, mop the floor, clean the stove and cabinets, and prepare a meal, while involuntarily thinking how sarcastic her husband would have been if he had been here watching her do domestic chores so doggedly. She would have muttered, “Well, someone’s got to do them.” And certainly he would have said, “We’re not somebody.”
Whoever he is, she’s somebody like the anybodies she sees around herself: strangers on the streets, homeless people in the shelter where she’s employed as a social worker trainee, overwhelmed single women, people floundering in uncertainty. She sets the table for two. Sunday is the only day she can have the chance to have lunch with her son. “It’s ready,” she says loudly. Not looking at her at all, he comes to the table, hastily takes some food, and goes back to his desk with it. She holds her tongue and swallows something.
Later, having spent the whole afternoon studying for her final exam, she feels exhausted. “It’ll be over soon.” She tries to be positive. In a month, she’ll have the degree and find a full-time job as a professional. This means more space, more money, and peace of mind. She collects her books and papers and piles them on the bookcase. She doesn’t know what to do. She can go outside to wander around the margins of the ravine, as she does whenever she’s free. She wonders what keeps her from doing that.
“Why don’t you go out for a walk?” asks her son, without turning to her, annoyed by her restlessness.
“You saw that sitcom before.”
He doesn’t answer. She continues, “Instead of watching TV maybe we can go see a movie.” He changes the channel. She says, “I forget you don’t like crowds. How about a quiet place?”
“Like the ravine?” He turns to her.
“Well …,” she feels nervous that he’s read her mind.
“The only time I like to go there is at midnight,” he stares at her for a second, “when it’s dark, quiet, wild,” he continues with a mysterious smile.
“But it’s not safe then,” she says, bewildered. He shrugs and turns his head.
The alarm clock rings at midnight. She quickly turns it off, hoping that he won't wake up. But he gets up and dresses as quickly as he did when he went hiking with his father. In a few minutes she’s following her son towards the ravine. He has a flashlight in his hand and his Swiss Army knife in his pocket. He has asked her to promise that she won’t say a word; otherwise, he won’t go with her.
Down the slope, the path is narrow and dark. He goes ahead of her, pushing back hanging branches. Once in a while he pauses to make sure she catches up with him, or to explain where they are now, or describe what bushes these dark shapes around them are, or what animals are now watching these freak intruders. She listens to him, without getting what he says. She’s afraid, not only of animals or dangerous strangers who might lie in ambush, but also of an inability to remain silent. She draws on all her strength to keep her promise.
Her heart is beating hard. Something squeaks, something croaks. Sweating, she counts the seconds and steps. The ordeal will soon be over. All she has to do is to keep going in the dark silently, trying to trace the thin trail of light ahead of her. On and off the flashlight captures the lurking shadows. Their footsteps echo in her ears. She trusts this echo and lends herself to the sweet dream of reaching the end of a journey.
Fereshteh Molavi was born in Tehran and now lives in Toronto. She has published a novel, The House of Cloud and Wind, and such works of fiction as The Persian Garden, The Orange and the Lime, and The Sunny Fairy and Other Stories. While in Iran, she translated works by Juan Rulfo, Katherine Mansfield, Mariano Azuela, Arnold Hauser, and other authors. She was a former research librarian and the Persian bibliographer at Sterling Library, Yale University. She appeared in the PEN anthology Speaking in Tongues. Her dialogue with the Canadian poet and fiction writer Karen Connelly, Listen to the Reed, was published by PEN Canada’s Readers & Writers Program.
September 15th, 2009
Jon Paul Fiorentino awarded 2009 Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry
August 1st, 2009
Amatoritsero Ede publishes much anticipated book