Linda Hutsell-Manning

Author

One Friday Night

Colleen's mother was always wound up by Friday afternoons and today, after the last piano student left, she sat pounding the keys, her clear high voice warbling Red Sails in the Sunset. In the kitchen, Colleen thumbed through an old Star Weekly, the radio dial at Friday's Fabulous Hit Parade. Buddy Holly had just begun That'll Be the Day when the back door gave its anticipated creak. Colleen turned down the volume. Her mother stopped in mid-phrase.

"The buggers laid me off," Frank Harper announced, stepping unsteadily onto the worn linoleum, "I'm all washed up, Maddie."

"Laid you off?" Madge stood framed in the kitchen doorway, wisps of greying auburn hair loosened from her frenetic piano playing. "For how long this time?"

"An extended leave of absence." Frank leaned against the worn arborite counter as if whittled down by his own accumulated defeats.

"So you thought you'd celebrate," Madge countered, sweeping past him to jab at the pot roast simmering on the stove.

"I saw it coming, god dammit, I saw it coming."

"But you did nothing to stop it."

Colleen sat rigid in the kitchen chair and concentrated on the article she'd been reading about Marilyn Bell swimming The English Channel.

"I've given them the last ten goddamned years of my life. What else do they want?"

Colleen's mother slammed the pot lid and attacked washed potatoes in the sink. What her father needed was food and the potatoes would take at least a half hour to cook.

"We're not getting into that again, Frank," her mother snapped, peeling a potato at breathtaking speed, "An extended leave of absence?"

"Till hell freezes over." He lurched to the fridge for a beer.

In the Harper household, there was always beer in the fridge and beer in the basement. The beer truck delivered every Wednesday afternoon and Colleen cringed if she was home, hiding in her bedroom to plot escape. The truck was such a blatantly public statement, like hanging out dirty laundry her mother always said.

Colleen made a fast exit to the stairs. Her father had been laid off last spring for drinking and being rowdy on the job, even teachers at school had known. Not that anyone said anything, not directly. People in small town Franklin were too polite for that. When she was still at home, Lillian, Colleen's older sister had been the buffer state. She used to warn Colleen. It's Friday night. Your dad's tying one on. Keep out of his way.

Colleen felt it was her responsibility now. If her father didn't have a job, how would they pay the rent? How would they eat? Lillian and her husband lived a hundred miles away with a new baby. Colleen figured she could always quit school and waitress full time at the Britannia Hotel. They'd been living like this, on the edge as her mother called it, for as long as Colleen could remember.

"How are we going to manage then?" Madge's voice splintered like glass cracking.

"How would I know? "

"You're the man in the house. The bread winner. Remember?"

"You know what?" Frank snorted. "Your understanding bowls me over."

"Understanding? Understanding about what? The fact you drink up half your pay every week, the fact we have nothing extra put by?"

"What about that damn piano teaching of yours? You must have a lot stashed away from that."

"Don't make me laugh. When you're not mooching it, it goes for groceries."

Colleen listened to her father stumble down the basement stairs. He had fallen down them once, five years ago when Colleen was still in public school. Her mother told everyone she had given him a basket of laundry to carry, as if somehow she caused him to fall. Colleen, who was at the bottom of the stairs, saw the opened bottle of beer he was carrying; watched it smash leaving foam and brown glass everywhere, one small sliver lodging in her leg. Her mother pulled it out with tweezers. When Colleen protested the laundry basket version, her mother insisted otherwise. You dropped a bottle of red currant jelly, Colleen.

"The rest of us have to eat," her mother called after him as he slammed the basement door. "We can't all live on beer and pretzels."

Frank had a hideaway behind the furnace where he kept his extra case of twenty-four stuck in the shoulder high window well. Colleen hoped he'd stay down there until after she left.

"Good thing one of us can have fun," her mother said during supper when Colleen mentioned skating later with Hannah and Evelyn. As usual, this made Colleen feel guilty.

She was up in her room getting ready when her father staggered up from the basement.

"So what's for supper?" he said. "Got something good for the old man?"

"It's nearly seven, Frank," Madge snapped. "Supper's over."

"So who needs supper," he slurred. "Dessert looks better." Colleen heard the familiar scuffle.

"No Frank . . . "

"Aw come on Maddie . . . "

"You're drunk."

"What the hell am I supposed to do, then?"

"Keep your voice down. Colleen is still in the house."

"You know something? I don't give a good goddamn."

"Sleep it off, Frank."

The fridge door slammed and her father's bulk slumped into a kitchen chair. Where her mother's footsteps stopped, a crescendo of scales began.

When the first shouts cut through the floor from below, Colleen slammed shut her dresser drawer, furious they couldn't wait until she left to have their stupid fight. A second shout followed, drawn out, desperate. Colleen's alarm-mode activated and she tiptoed to the top of the stairs.

Her mother stood outside the closed bathroom door, arms wrapped around herself, staring wildly past the bannister. "What in God's sakes are you doing in there, Frank?" Her face grey, the whites of her eyes too large.

"It's all over, Maddie . . . I'm packing it in."

"Open the door." Madge rattles the knob back and forth.

Colleen takes the stairs two at a time and slams against the door. "Open the door," she repeats, pressing her face into the varnished panel, "It's Colleen, open the door."

Her father's voice slurs to a hoarse whisper. "Sweet Jesus the blood, sweet Jesus . . . "

Madge grabs her daughter's shoulders. "Get a hammer, get a crow bar."  Colleen can't remember doing this but she must have. They bang and pry until the door jamb gives way.

Her father is slumped on the toilet seat, head against the sink, one arm draped into it, the other in his lap, blood in delicate arches across the black and white checkered floor.

He looks up at Madge, voice quavering. "I've slashed my dammed wrists, don't you see?"  He flings one up, the flesh gaping like a deformed mouth. "I'm packing it all in . . . "

"Call the doctor," Madge whispers, wiping blood from her face and arms. "Tell him your father's had an accident."

As Colleen dials, the numbers keep disappearing, turning into her mother's blood-smeared apron, the spatter-painted towels, the straight razor floating in a dark puddle by her father's boot.  

Colleen is still pressed against the living room wall as Doctor Medherne's voice drones on from the bathroom. When to change the bandages, how long the shot will last, that he won't report the incident.
 
"I'm supposed to go skating," she whispers as he strides past.

"Skating?"  He stops to snap shut his black bag. "Then that's what you should do, go skating."

Her mother is right behind, calmer now, reassured by his professional authority.

"The doctor says I should go skating." Colleen hears her voice as if someone else is speaking.

"Well, then, you should do what Doctor Medherne says."

"I... I don't know if I can."

"Nonsense," the doctor replies. "Do you a world of good." He cuffs Colleen's shoulder. "Get you out of the house. Mix with your friends."

Colleen glides into each step, ice air pressing against her face, the PA crackling out Elvis crooning  . . .  down at the e-end of Lonely Stre-et . . .   Heartbreak Hotel . . .   She concentrates on duck cuts, strides, angora sweaters, tries to blink away red skate grooves that keep spider-patterning the ice.
 
"Colleen . . .  Colleen, wait up."

Hannah's voice acts like a camera lens, refocusing the Friday night crowd.

"Have you seen Evelyn?" Hannah asks, catching up. "She wasn't sure she could come. If I had parents like hers, I'd kill myself."

Colleen digs the toe of her skate into the ice and slams against the boards.

"You all right?" Hannah swings back, grabbing Colleen's arm.

"Oh sure," Colleen hears herself say, "just cut too fast.  Dumb eh?" She leans against the boards, waiting for her heart to slow down. "Hey," she says, skating off with a vengeance,  "get a load of Moira Jackson over there."

"Where?"

"She just came on the ice."

"How does she get away with it?" Hannah whispers, catching up. "Mom wouldn't let me out of the house looking like that."  Moira glides back and forth, the pom poms of her red angora sweater rolling up over one breast and down the other.

Colleen sees blood spattering across the sink, along the floor. Her stomach heaves and she skates faster. 
       
"Hey speed artist," Hannah says, grabbing  Colleen's arm.  "What's with you tonight?"

Colleen shrugs, slowing down to catch her breath. "What about Evelyn?" 

"Some religious thing at her church tomorrow," Hannah replies. "Her mother says Evelyn's working on a speech and might be a bit late.  Boy, they never let up on her, do they?"

Colleen nods and speeds up again, numbness pushing her in and out past slower skaters.

"Colleen . . .  Hannah . . .  don't go so fast." Evelyn puffs up behind them. "See that guy with Mark Hennessey?  Isn't he a dream?  He's here for the church retreat."

Colleen pushes ahead of Hannah and Evelyn concentrating on her skate blades, the rink noises spiraling after her, swish, swishing, half a tone at a time back to her mother's last student practicing scales, her dad slouched by the sink, the doctor cuffing her shoulder...

"So, how'd you do on the Chemistry quiz?"
 
Colleen sees Hannah's mouth move but can't make out the words.

"Hey, Colleen, your head in the clouds or what?"   Hannah duster-shakes the back of Colleen's sweater.

"I thought you were talking to Evelyn."

Hannah glides in front of Colleen, skating backwards. "Evelyn went off with that guy at least five minutes ago. Are you out of it or what?"

Colleen races to an opening in the boards and clambers over notched seats to the top row of bleachers. As Hannah approaches, Colleen bites the inside of her lip and concentrates on her knees.

"Look," Hannah says, slipping an arm around Colleen's shoulder, "I shouldn't  ask you about Chemistry. I know you find it tough." Hannah is so sweet, so sheltered.

"It's a lot of other things," Colleen says, listening to her own voice. "You know, parents and stuff."  All she has to do is get Hannah onto her mother.

"Don't I know it," Hannah quips, right on cue. "All I wanted was to smoke in the house last night and mom had a total bird. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. She goes through nearly a pack a day."

Colleen nods. Hannah seems too studious to smoke.
 
"Want to go out for one now?"

"Why not."

 November dark and drizzle wraps around them.

"Craven A."  Hannah grins. " Different from mom's so she can't say I'm scrounging."

Hannah holds the match. Colleen inhales and chokes.

"Not so fast," Hannah lectures, banging her on the back.  "Do it slowly."

Two more drags and Colleen's head moves out beyond her, nose hairs flattening, temples expanding. "So what's Evelyn up to now?"
 
"She's gone all ga ga over that guy visiting her church. What a square. Horned rimmed glasses, huge Adam's apple. They're skating round like two peas in a pod." 
 
"They'll probably make a great couple," Colleen says, concentrating on the shadowed wall of the rink.

"You sound catty." 

"No, I mean it. They suit each other. They'll get married and live unhappily ever after."

"Colleen."

"It's a fact of life."

Things are more straightforward for Evelyn and Hannah. Hannah's a brain, Evelyn lives for church and probably marriage. Colleen's getting out, as far away as possible the minute she finishes high school. Her mother has relatives in Ireland. The Flannigan side of the family her father always says like it's a disease.
  
 Colleen tosses her butt into a puddle, watches it hiss down, disappear.

"Washroom," Hannah whispers. "My hair's a mess."
 
Inside, the PA drones out The Tennessee Waltz and couples lean closer, bodies pulsing round and round going nowhere.

"Lucky you." Hannah sighs, pulling the elastic from her brown pony tail. "I'd give anything to be a curly blonde."

"It's not what it's cracked up to be." Colleen concentrates on her tousled reflection in the mirror. "Guys think I'm dumb and easy. Dumb maybe," she says, slamming the cubicle door, "but easy, no way. No guy's going to get me in the family way."

 "Have you seen that neat stuff to lighten your hair?" Hannah asks as they skate back onto the ice. "Evelyn and I were looking at it in the drugstore. I tried lemon juice but it doesn't do much.  Mom would have a bird but . . . "

Colleen cuts ahead of an arm-entwined couple. She can't hack this much longer. "What time is it?" she asks as they glide past the scoreboard.

"Just after nine thirty," Hannah says.

"Gotta go then." Colleen turns abruptly into the boards. "Sorry to be a party pooper."

Hannah is right behind her."You sure?"

"Promised Mom I'd be home by ten."

"I thought that was Evelyn's line."

"Six A.M. breakfast shift at the Britannia," Colleen says, unlacing her skates. "Need my beauty sleep."

Outside, Colleen stops to breathe in the silky quiet. The rain has turned to large wet snow flakes that blanket the sidewalk, snow-sparkle street lights, melt down her face. 

As she turns onto her street, Colleen's footsteps echo on the pavement like black boots tramping on her chest. The house looks peaceful, its Insul-Brick siding snow-dotted, its windows curtained shut. When she pushes open the back door, a smell of Lysol drifts out from the dimly lit kitchen. Her footsteps follow her now. Lysol. The black and white bathroom tiles glisten, fresh towels hang by the sink.

The hall clock ticks into the silence, into the veins throbbing in her wrists.
 

Honourable Mention in Freefall Fiction Contest
Judge Karen Connelly
Freefall Magazine May 2008
Available in book stores across Canada
www.freefallmagazine.ca  for locations

 
Poetry Novel in Progress Drama

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