Medium 9781771870641

What Can't Be Undone

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In her first collection of short fiction, dee Hobsbawn-Smith creates protagonists struggling to navigate the troubles common to life everywhere, including children attempting to make their parents proud, the collapse of romantic relationships, and dealing with death and loss. Her stories are rife with the disasters of homelessness, domestic violence, and child abuse, and expose the difficulties that arise in relationships between brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and parents and children.

What Can’t Be Undone is a collection anchored in the Western Canadian landscape, and the natural imagery which has become synonymous to the area reigns supreme. These stories are powerfully influenced by local colour. Horses’ hooves echo from coulee walls, bluejays, crows, and eagles announce the seasons, and coyotes wail from distant valleys as Hobsbawn-Smith travels with her protagonists across rolling prairies, unforgiving mountain ranges, and along coastal highways.

Hobsbawn-Smith introduces readers to characters of all ages, from a teenager navigating her crush on an older man in “Exercise Girls” to the recently widowed seamstress who rediscovers her zest for life in “Needful Things”. Loss is explored on various levels, from the ending of friendships and romantic relationships in stories such as “The Good Husband” and “Fallen Sparrow”, to a mother’s paralyzing fear of her children’s death in “The Quinzie”. Hobsbawn-Smith combines keen observation with an unflinching eye on her characters’ flaws to bring into painful focus the challenges of coming to terms with loss.

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Monroe’s Mandolin

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THE BAR IS JAMMED, PATIENT PEOPLE waiting for the first set. I’m drinking coffee at the counter, my face turned to the stage. Conversation flows around me. Mostly, I don’t notice. Tonight, a word dropped into a discussion somewhere behind me hooks my attention.

“It’s a Gibson. Want it? Seven hundred.”

“Hell, it’s a sweet mandolin. Not a mark on her. But I’m not — ”

I turn my head in time to see a scrawny redhead four tables back shake his head at a pockmarked man in frayed leather. A small black case lies open on the table in front of them.

“ — left-handed, and I don’t want the hassle of restringing it. Sorry, man.”

In half a heartbeat, I am at the table. “Hey.”

“Hey yourself, dollface.” Rusty nudges him in the ribs and whispers. Pockface doesn’t miss a beat. “Ah. You’re Lise, right? You own this joint?” He raises an eyebrow but doesn’t protest when I pick up the mandolin.

I nod. “And I’d know this mandolin anywhere. Where’d you get it?”

 

Nerve

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FROM MY PERCH ALONG THE RAIL, I can’t fault the start of Hailey’s dressage test — smooth halt, precise nodding salute to the judges. But the bloody girl’s torso is so stiff, I’m completely surprised when Rumi glides into the half-paused aria of a collected trot. Then I see Hailey’s backbone ease into her saddle, and my own body relaxes, too. Maybe they’ll be fine. Maybe. She nudges Rumi into a canter and I’m momentarily lulled. But a minute later, she inexplicably pulls him to a halt in front of the judges’ table. Bloody hell. She must have forgotten the next movement. I can just imagine what Stan will have to say about this. Her pop’s down at the gate, doing a slow burn, scattering cigarette ashes as the clerk reads the next movement, his measured voice loud enough for the whole stadium to hear. Watching Hailey’s flushed face as she listens, I wonder where I buried my old top hat. If I can find it, it would do her more justice than that faded helmet she wears, give her a little dignity.

 

The Good Husband

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“I HAVE TWO CHOICES,” George tells me, then he lights another smoke. A cigarette is constantly in his mouth, except for when he carries Trudy in and out of her garden. Her litany of illnesses over the last two years is long, from female complaints to irritable bowel. She doesn’t need carrying but he persists, the habit formed after her accident, a fall from the stage that wrenched her life into its present narrow shape. Trudy slid from painkillers to this other form of dependence that would have made my Astrid weep to witness.

We are drinking coffee in my back yard, sitting in the chairs that Astrid painted, oranges and pinks splattered over a solid teal background. “What do you mean, two choices?” I say.

“You know. Faithful. Or not.”

“C’mon, George, marriage is more complicated than that.” Then I stop to reflect.

Trudy lives in a shabby blue bathrobe. I doubt if she combs her hair from one day to the next. When I pass through my gate adjoining their yard, she waves half-heartedly. I rarely hear her voice anymore, and her movements have faded to a shuffle. Seems like she has settled permanently into her starring role as an invalid. She was a jazz dancer, the full grace of God in her arms, legs, even her hands. A torso rippling with muscles, platinum hair to her waist. Watching her was like watching a river. Before her accident, she choreographed and performed a one-woman show that Astrid and George and I attended at the Arts Centre, a torrential event of charged sexuality. She and George came over after the show’s premiere. Trudy was still high, and swept Astrid around the kitchen in a spinning waltz that had George and me dumbstruck. “There’s no room in art for milquetoast,” she said as I poured the champagne. Now she shuffles, and seems older than Astrid was when she died.

 

Still Life with Birds

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TODAY, LIKE EVERY WORKDAY, BEGINS IN the restaurant kitchen. Without turning on the radio to break the lake’s silence, Ariana makes a cheese and chive omelette for the two of them to share. Plates and espressos in hand, she climbs the back stairs and enters Violetta’s bedroom without knocking.

“Vi. It’s time.”

“It’s time to begin, isn’t it,” Vi warbles from her bed, deliberately off-key. Ariana has learned to interpret every blink of her sister’s one functioning eye, and when Vi winks, she looks past the stare of the blind right iris, glazed wide open. Vi giggles, picks up her meter and tests her sugar levels. Ariana, perched on the foot of the bed, has to look away when Vi slides the needle into her upper arm.

They eat in silence. Ariana rolls the ties of Vi’s yellow sunhat between her fingers and sips her coffee. Vi still surprises her, flashes of humour embedded like unexpected glass. She can see the lake through the window, smooth except for the ruffle of wild waterfowl along the shore. “Bonne anniversaire, ma belle,” she says to Violetta.

 

The Quinzhee

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HE WAS FOURTEEN THE YEAR WE built the quinzhee, and I was seventeen, the youngest kid in grade twelve. Old enough to know better, our taciturn Irish mother was in the habit of saying. She never said it to me again after he died, but I have said it to myself often enough.

I have trained myself to never utter those words to my own son or daughter. But they reverberate in my head as I watch my twins go out into the sunlight, intent on testing themselves against the world. That is ridiculous, I know. All of life involves risk, and they could shatter their fragile bodies by sheer happenstance on the sidewalk right in front of this house. I am a cautious mother, in a way I never thought possible when I was seventeen and invulnerable, and Leo grows impatient with me even though he understands. “You have to let them go, Jess,” he says. But today, on the first anniversary of my mother’s death, it is too late to beg her forgiveness, or Jeremy’s, and I cannot find an olive branch within me to extend to my own hand.

 

Appetites

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THE BLUE JAY IS HANGING AROUND again. I haven’t seen him for months, and now here he is in the front yard, shrieking as he clings to the twigs on the outside of the birdfeeder, his crest catching on its roof as he pokes his spiky beak inside to get at the platform. Finally he gives up, flies the few feet to the ground. Pecks at the peanuts that lie scattered among the sunflower seeds in the meagre grass at the foot of the cherry tree.

There were years when I couldn’t abide the smell of peanuts, years I wondered if I’d ever go back to eating them, if I’d ever make peanut and chocolate tart for the dessert menu or peanut butter and honey sandwiches for my kid’s school lunch. Course, that was before the big allergy lookout — peanuts are verboten now at Jared’s school. But it’s not the peanuts I want. It’s my appetite. The enthusiasm that blue jay brought to his precarious roost on the edge of the feeder. The alacrity that sent him scuttling through the grass to eat. That’s what I miss on these colourless days. That, and my sense of taste. Everything I put into my mouth tastes like scorched beans or burnt nuts. My nose recognizes just a few aromas, the most pungent ones — garlic, sweat, caramelized sugar that’s gone past amber to the edge of bitterness.

 

The Pickup Man

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TODAY WE’RE GOING TO SEE THE chucks in the desert near Drumheller, at the best small-town rodeo in Alberta. To celebrate, Clarisse is wearing a pink straw cowboy hat, clutching its satin cord around her neck as she spits cherry pits out the open window. I’ve been teasing her about that hat ever since we rolled outta Calgary, working hard to get a smile out of her, trying to keep her from fretting on our destination. “Lookin’ for a cowboy, Clarisse?” I say now. “You, a buckle bunny?”

Before we left Calgary, I promised her that we’d bypass downtown Drumheller. She don’t ever want to drive down Main Street. Their house has too much of her blood in the floorboards for her to ever want to see it again. Just before the land dips down into the coulee and we turn east at the water tower above the prison, I see her shiver. I dunno if it’s concern for Aidan, facing the dangerous temptations of teen life, or realizing every man locked behind those bars has a wife or mother who’s watched his fall. Or knowing Gavin’s there in the slammer for a good long time. Looking at the water tower, I feel a river of regret, missing the Gavin I knew as a kid, the big brother who protected me from Dad’s fists. That’s not the Gavin Clarisse lived with, and she ain’t likely to believe me if I describe him to her.

 

Other Mothers’ Sons

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THE BOY WAS SITTING AT THE lip of the TransCanada Highway, thumb out, the elephant-hide hills east of Kamloops behind him. He held a hand-lettered sign. Please. The tarmac wavered in the heat. Joanna started to brake as she read the single word, then searched for a turnaround point, but backtracking on the highway is never simple. By the time she’d found a safe place to carve her first U-turn, then another a good five miles back the way she’d come, ten minutes had elapsed before she pulled her car to a stop in the shale at the young man’s feet.

She lowered the passenger window, doors still locked, and took a careful look. The kid’s backpack was Army surplus, his work boots and khaki shorts coated with dust and smudged with grit. His face was clean. “Hop in,” she said, and hit the unlock button. He nodded at her, his hands busy with door handle and seat belt clasp, but his eyes said thanks from beneath the bandana wrapped around his forehead, biker style. A few miles later, she heard him sigh and sensed his body relaxing into the seat.

 

Needful Things

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WHEN THE SEWING MACHINE’S NEEDLE BROKE for the third time, Susan dug around in the bulky corduroy with her pliers, grumbling as she searched for the tip. Cutting down the jacket was proving more trouble than it was worth, but the young horsewoman who’d brought it to her had insisted. A gift from her brother, she said. And now Susan was late getting it done.

Each morning, Susan lay in bed and counted the flocked lilies on the wallpaper and considered the temperature of the linoleum. Wondered if she wanted coffee or tea. But she didn’t want anything, so each morning she stayed under the duvet. Counting wallpaper flowers. Even her appetite stayed dormant. Eventually, it was her body’s discomfort that drove her out of bed, not the urge to step into her day, not the tedious job of re-sizing a jacket.

What was it this jacket reminded her of? Nothing stayed with her for long these days. Not even her garden, where she and Peter had spent their summers. As his health had declined his energy slipped too, but he’d still loved mornings ensconced in a deck chair, watching her dig.

 

Fallen Sparrow

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THE PLUM TREES HAVE JUST COME into bloom, and I’m standing behind my cart admiring their rosy canopy when the pain hits, a rocket blowing up in my ribcage, shooting deeper, into my lungs, as if one of my own kitchen knives is fracturing, shards of metal beneath my ribs. Gasp, bent double. Wheeze. Unable to draw a breath. Lurch to the park bench like some old rubby. Sit down, displacing the chickadees.

Slowly the pain recedes. When my eyes clear, I can see the birds again, their glittering black eyes beneath little monks’ hoods, their voices flittering and purling. I’m still panting, light-headed, when a skinny teenager in torn jeans sashays up to me, about my height, his head cocked to one side, fair-skinned, bright bird-like eyes, a guitar on a fraying red cord slung over one shoulder. “I’m hungry,” he says, holds out empty hands.

He’s not the first homeless boy to ask me for food. I get up right away, stumbling a little, one hand clutching the back of the bench, the other on the rail of my cart, trying to conceal my frailties from this perfect child. As I fill a bun with bratwurst, I puzzle briefly over which condiments to include, settle for a gherkin, lace the bun with garlicky fried onions, dither between Dijon or spicy malt mustard, my hand shaking as I reach across the cart to put the bun into his hands. “No charge.”

 

Exercise Girls

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I WAS FIFTEEN WHEN I TRESPASSED up the long driveway to visit the horses grazing behind the fence. I’d studied those horses all spring while walking the half-mile home from the bus stop with my little sister Jill. Thoroughbreds, I guessed, what I’d want to be if I were a horse, so elegant and spare — a far cry from my own compact frame, more like a Welsh pony. The horses reminded me of Dad.

Dad had called me his pit pony whenever I’d drop my head and plug away at homework I didn’t quite get. “You don’t quit, do you, Fanny?” he’d tease, stroking my unruly hair as if it was a mane in need of grooming. I missed him so much my bones ached, a dull intermittent pain. Forty years later I still miss him, and I wonder how that year would have played out if he’d been alive.

One horse, long-legged, a dainty head like an Arab’s, perked his ears at me. I dropped to my knees beside the gate and was rummaging in my backpack when a man in faded Levis and denim jacket, tall and narrow as a hinge, strode from an adjacent field milling with Hereford cattle. He stood watching me from the far side of the gate. Beneath the tilt of his cowboy hat, his eyes were the brown of the slow-moving water in the nearby canal, and his hatchet face was creased like linen dried on the clothesline. Frayed cuffs left his wrists naked and I could see black hairs threading toward his knuckles. My breathing rasped unexpectedly and I could feel the skin of my throat get warm as I looked up at him. I had to look away, forty yards down the lane to where Jill was flipping the red flag up and down on the rusty mailbox at the driveway’s end, shifting from one foot to the other. I mouthed warnings at her, then turned back to the lanky man in blue.

 

Undercurrents

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I WAS CUTTING BACK THE SALAL along the driveway when the old VW made the turn off Black Creek Road. The young woman was the first to climb out, red braids tight-wrapped in a high crown above her forehead. She looked about her timidly before she reached back into the van, a little boy with strawberry blond curls squirming in her arms. An older couple — her folks? — emerged slowly from the VW, the woman’s salt-and-ginger hair and dimmed-down face a pale variation of her daughter. The man gritted his teeth as he swung his hips clear on the driver’s side of the faded Volks. Of course it was raining, that steady flat drizzle that draws in the horizon and absorbs any light. None of them wore rain gear. I leaned my weed-whacker against a cedar tree, went right over and put my hand on the toddler’s chubby forearm. The young woman’s grey eyes widened and she backed away. I took a step closer and rumpled the boy’s hair.

“It’s okay. Little kids like me. What is he, nearly two? Welcome to Miracle Beach Marina. Here, give him to me.” Her arms and face tightened as I pulled the boy from her arms, surprised by his heft. He leaned away, then tilted his face up to look at me, curious. Dark blue eyes the colour of larkspur, eyelashes like a calf ’s. I smiled at him, then turned back to the others. “I’m Peter Merrick. The owner.” I jerked my head toward the office. “You folks look like you could use a little help right about now.”

 

The Bridge

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AT FOUR AM, BREATHLESS ROLLS OVER and stares at the blue numbers on the clock. She can feel sweat beading on her upper lip. At five, she pulls on a skirt, tank top, sandals. Cigarettes and lighter, cash and key, cotton sweater over her arm. The hall floor creaks as she tiptoes to the lobby.

“Which way to the Brooklyn Bridge?”

The night clerk’s smile is as wan as the walls. “A good half hour south on foot, ma’am. You aren’t walkin’ alone, surely?”

Breathless almost smiles. “I’ve seen things. It’s like wearing armour, you know? A map, please.”

The map materializes. “It’s got the subways on the other side. See? And maybe I can lock your necklace in the hotel safe?”

“Gotcha. I’ll keep it out of sight.” She wraps her sweater sleeves around her throat, covering the necklace, steps into the morning.

A postcard pinned to the wall above the coffee urn in her favourite diner at home in Calgary had brought her to New York City. She’d stared at that postcard over breakfast for years. Men in hard hats and undershirts, building the mile-long Brooklyn Bridge over the East River in 1883, leaning casually on the cables. All those strands spoke volumes, braided steel wires that held the bridge together, tied it to the earth, stronger than they appeared, complicated beyond unstringing or understanding. The men who had woven the bridge into being were long dead, but Breathless had wanted to see their world — boots swinging over the bridge deck as they unpacked metal lunch buckets, at ease, unconcerned by the river, its currents, the city’s unseen risks. As if life was no more demanding or perilous than a simple walk across a bridge. As if all anyone needed was a single silver strand to hold them safe and guide them home.

 

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