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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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,
"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
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.
"So who needs supper," he slurred.
"Dessert looks better." Colleen heard the familiar scuffle.
"No Frank . . . "
"Aw come on Maddie . . . "
"What the hell am I supposed to do, then?"
"Keep your voice down. Colleen is still in
"You know something? I don't give a good
"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
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
"It's all over, Maddie . . . I'm packing
"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
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
"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
"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
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."
"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
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
"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
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
"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?"
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
"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."
"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
"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
"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
Judge Karen Connelly
Freefall Magazine May 2008
Available in book stores across Canada
www.freefallmagazine.ca for locations