Suzanne Plett lay on the edge of death. Her parents and her little brother Albert were grey-faced and silent, going about their chores on the farm and minding the household by rote. Listless, but more optimistic than the others now that she was home from the hospital, Suzanne watched as Albert did his homework in her room. Like a little soldier setting up an outpost, he spread school scribblers out on the flat quilted blanket, an added layer of armour against her invisible adversary.
He won’t give up. He’ll just keep going, urging me to fight until either I die or get better.
Suzanne lay unmoving. She spelled out words from her reader in her head or recited aloud the names of Provincial capitals, their populations, and main exports. She listed the ingredients in her mother’s best recipes. “Tart Pastry,” she spoke the words in a firm voice that seemed to make the ceramic angels on the dresser top listen. Albert listened too, moistening his lips and forgetting to breathe, as if what she was saying was of the greatest importance.
Whenever Albert came into the room she stirred, her eyes opened and a thin smile appeared on her lips. Her gums were too red and her skin too pale. Albert read her jokes from his Archie and Jughead Digest. Sometimes he brushed her hair, hiding his hands to pull clumps from the brush—evidence too damning for her to see.
As the March sun gained strength, Albert spent time playing with the young goats in the barnyard. Suzanne watched him enviously through the window. She laughed when he did, imagining herself running and jumping in the puddles. He has enough strength for both of us, she thought—if only he could share.
The baby goat he called Belle was especially fond of him and bleated whenever he came into the barn. One warm day, Albert tied a bell to the collar he had placed around her neck. He made a leash from some binder twine and led Belle to Suzanne’s room.
“Suzanne,” Albert said in an excited whisper. “You have a visitor!”
Belle's hooves made a clop-clop sound on the floorboards in the hall. Suzanne craned her neck, lifting her head to see who was there. Albert let go of the leash and ran around to the far side of the bed. Seeing him disappear through the door, the doeling rushed into the room. It scrambled forward and reared up to put its forelegs on the quilt, then simpered, straining to climb across to Albert.
Belle stopped short when she saw Suzanne, the young girl's eyes bright and shining in amazement. The doeling lowered her head and sniffed.
“Belle's licking her, she's licking her!” Albert shouted.
Suzanne withdrew her hands from beneath the covers and held the slender downy neck, feeling the life so strong in the spring kid.
I'll be okay, Albert remembers thinking that as he fell from the rafters. He always had been. Snowmobiles crashing into trees; the chainsaw slipping and cutting a strip across his jeans but the skin untouched. Drunken nail gun battles. That was real stupid, but I wasn’t the only one doin’ it.
“I guess a broken back is not okay,” he mumbled to himself as the light changed and vehicles coursed through the intersection sending up a cloud of snowmelt mist as they sped by.
He wheeled down the city sidewalk towards the Law Courts. Suzanne was going to meet him today. She had some court business at 2:00, but said it was just a short thing—in and out. He stopped for a hot dog at Chez Eddie. I better watch my weight, he thought, a bit guilty as he rolled up the ramp to get his daily ration from the truck parked on Broadway Avenue. Besides, the guy here’s a jerk. Setting up his little food truck in the summer, spends the winter drinking cheap draft down at the Legion, or in the titty bars out by the airport. Bragging about being a vet when all he did was hang around in the motor pool in Winnipeg. If I wasn’t in this chair, I woulda settled his bullshit down a long time ago.
“Gonna need a heavier ramp, you keep it up,” said Eddie. He chewed gum, his too-big false teeth clicking a bit as he worked his jaw.
“I resemble that remark,” Albert said with a grim smile. A not-funny smile. He held up one finger and blinked it twice, like a back-catcher.
“One dog, with hot peppers and onions,” said Eddie, busying himself with a bag of buns.
“And hurry!” Albert said. “Gotta meet Sis today and hear about how great she’s doing.”
“Tell her I love her.”
“No chance. You are a smelly dog, selling smelly dogs to other smelly dogs. You are on the interdict list.” Loser. Bet he couldn’t even change a tire or fix a broken window, never mind put up a two-hundred-foot hog barn in a frickin’ Manitoba winter. He always acts like he’s my equal. He’s not. He’s a hot dog salesman.
“I love you too, Plett,” said Eddie, smiling and handing him a foil-wrapped hot dog. “You know, people are gonna talk, you two both not married, and she’s such a looker—French mom, and all. Maybe you should let me—I’m a pure-bred RC boy, eh—ask her out, just to keep appearances up, y’know?”
What? Eddie take out Suzanne? Appearances, for shit’s sake? Albert sat with his head down. He raised his face, dark and threatening. “First of all, I don’t ‘let’ anything for Suzanne. She decides things for herself. And second,” he reached back with the loaded hot dog and fired it past Eddie’s head. It exploded against the back wall and showered the counter in peppers, onions, and mustard.
“Speaking of appearances, Eddie my boy, you better clean your place up,” Albert said, glaring up at him, defiant. Shoulda done that a long time ago. Check out that face! Serves him right.
Albert tooled down the ramp, skidded into a turn at the bottom in the springtime slush and then pumped the wheels hard towards Broadway Avenue.
“And don’t come back!” Eddie yelled. He held a wad of paper towel as a dam under a knot of fried onions that was slithering down the wall. A pair of customers stared at Albert, heads shaking.
“I ain’t done with you!” Albert shouted from the sidewalk. “You’re gonna take back what you said or you and me are going to go round and round!”
Albert sat scowling at Eddie from his perch on a low knoll on the legislature grounds. Glowering down at him from his slight vantage point, he had the strange sensation of standing. He looked down and there were his legs in the chair. Nope.
Suzanne walked towards Albert. She took long strides up the incline and her face glowed, cheeks flushed. Her long hair, not quite black, fell about the shoulders of her navy peacoat, the overall effect like that of a model in an upscale mail-order catalogue. Vibrance and youth.
“Suzanne! Thought you had a, a whatsit...?” Albert said, swiveling to face her.
“A disposition. Adjourned, bro,” she said, opening a leather portfolio to hand him an envelope. “But this arrived today.”
“What is it... oh, wait! No way?”
“Open it,” she said. Mona Lisa smile—lip gloss, white teeth, pink gums. “A little something from the insurance company.”
A side shore breeze carried the faint odour of tropical decay and ruffled Suzanne’s dress. She lay in a chaise shaded by a thatched roof. Several fallen coconuts sat in the sand around her, half buried in their own craters. She gazed out past the reef—“beyond the swash,” as they said on the island—to where the water was a darker blue.
An easel stood near her lounge chair and a watercolour was underway.
Nearby, beside the street that paralleled the beach, stood the subject of the painting—a woman who used a short steel bar to prod a driftwood fire in the cupped steel of a half drum. Orange flames jumped and danced out of the rusted barrel and the woman held her head and shoulders back from the heat they threw. Her skin was dark from working in the sun and her forehead shone with sweat. In the evening, she would put on a pretty print dress and sell grilled fish and chicken to the tourists strolling by on the sandy roadway.
“Carolina blue, cerulean blue, cobalt blue,” Suzanne said from under the brow of a sun hat, her eyes cast down to read the pigment tube labels.
“Labatt's Blue,” said Albert, hoisting a bottle of Belikin beer as he drew up next to her on the wooden ramp. “Next best thing, anyhow. How's the Queen of Caye Caulker today?”
“A mess in a sundress. How's my favourite four-wheeled Mennonite-Francophone?”
“Perfect, only better, in boardshorts. Ready for your meds?” The fixings for a joint lay in his lap.
“My meds? Looks like our meds, Mr. Eyes-like-two-pee-holes-in-the-snow. Startin' early, ain't we?” What else is new? she thought, straining to keep her face impassive. Don’t show him you’re worried or upset—he’ll freak.
“I have a surfing lesson to give soon, so, you know—gotta attend to this business now.”
“Seriously. Meds now or wait ‘til later?” Albert said, persisting.
“How about now and later?”
“Now yer talkin'.” He rolled a joint while she shook a pill out of an orange plastic bottle. He lit the joint and passed it to her. She took a greedy drag and squinted at her brother through one eye, holding out her hand for a swig of beer.
“Jeez, if Mom and our little old Mennonite Dad could see me now…” she said after exhaling. She struggled up in her chair and dabbed at the painting.
“You're gettin’ good,” Albert said, admiring the watercolour.
“The trick is to know when to stop.” She watched as Albert placed the joint in an ashtray epoxied to his armrest.
“Not my strong point, eh? I don't think I’d make a good painter.”
She smiled at him, her thin body in repose. “You just gotta listen to the painting, buddy. It tells you when to stop if you pay attention.”
His face clouded. He looked hard at her where she lay, her dress crumpled and the veins on her white arms showing pale blue through the skin.
“Nice try,” Albert said. “We’ve talked about this, Suzanne,” he continued, his voice raised just enough to make her look over at him.
“Now listen up. I’m just gonna come out and say this, okay? I will get you through this. It’s no big deal—we done it before. Me an’ Belle got you through the first spell, back when you were little. That’s where I took care of you. Then after my swan dive, you got me set up with the insurance settlement—that’s one for you. That was years ago, eh? Now we gotta get each other through retirement, and guess what? I’ve already begun. I started my golden fucking years without you.”
He paused long enough to take a big hit off the joint. His eyes stayed locked on her the whole time. Suzanne thought of Belle, the tiny doeling goat licking the salt from her neck as she lay in her childhood sick bed, the tongue rough as a kitten’s.
Suzanne focused on the reef line where a knot of baitfish roiled the surface. “Mom and Dad let me have Belle in my room for weeks. She peed on the floor and you cleaned it up so Mémère wouldn’t go nuts, remember?”
“Oh, yeah...” He relaxed his shoulders and leaned against the chairback. “You don’t soon forget the smell of goat piss.”
“I remember you cursing as you mopped up the pee. Remember little Belle watching?”
“She had those crazy horizontal pupils,” he said, then paused and tilted his head side to side, his hand pinching his neck. “Christ, Suzanne. You weighed, like, forty pounds when you came back from the hospital…” He coughed. With blood in his mouth, he turned aside and spat. It landed thick and black and did not seep into the dry sand at all.
He sipped on the beer to take away the metallic taste in his mouth and then slid the bottle into the cup holder. “So remember, Sis, I’ll say when you can stop. Okay? Until then, you keep the faith: you convalesce, you take the cancer meds and my meds too, you paint, you recite Mom’s tart recipe...”
“I suppose you can still recite it? I can.”
“Damn-tootin’ I can. Two cups flour. One teaspoon salt...”
“Alright already, Plett... okay!” she said, smiling with tired eyes at the wiry little belligerent in the wry beret, who now wagged his wheelchair at her, the front tires lifted off the ground.
Rolling into the Law Courts lot, Suzanne parked in her friend’s spot. Phyllis was a staffer for Judge Neufeld. “My spot is yours if you want it, Sue. I don’t mind taking the bus in summer,” Phyllis offered when Suzanne returned in remission, weakened but eager to get back to work. Belize was nice and it did the trick, but I’m no painter. And Albert, drunk every day by three, clowning in front of all the Americans, all the snorkelers, making awful comments to the young girls in their swimsuits. God! Winnipeg is a reprieve.
The tall guard at the Remand Centre buzzed her in. “Miss Plett,” he said, nodding.
He’s the one who knows Cousin Christopher. Richard Dumont is his name. What a damn hunk, she thought, giving him a friendly wave. “How’s the prisoner?”
“Like a boil on the you-know-what,” he said with a small shake of his head and a shy smile.
“Yeah, sounds about right. His cough?”
“The same, but I’m no doctor. Say, ah, how’s his, you know, his attitude? Between you and me, word is he’d get off, or he could, if he just smartened up. Your cousin Chris told me about Albert. Played with the Wheat Kings and had a try-out with Montreal, straight A student without cracking a book, ran a big construction crew. Quite a guy.”
She smiled briefly, glad to hear praise for Albert once again. “Yes. I’m hoping his lawyer can get this thing straightened out. Meeting room?”
“Two, I’ll buzz you in when you get there,” Dumont said, checking off her name in the register. She walked down the concrete corridor, footfalls ringing. Smells like bleach, she thought, slightly repulsed by it.
“Suzanne takes you down, to her place by the river…” Albert’s off-tune singing came from the room at the end of the hall. He grinned when she entered, the buzzer loud in the concrete interior. “Did I ever mention to you, counsellor, that because of my chair, if permanently incarcerated I’ll receive a cell that is fourteen inches wider than my fellow inmates?”
“Yes. True—wider cell door. But remember, in this place, I’m strictly your sister, not your counsel.”
“Yes on both counts. How are you? Sit down...”
A wooden chair, scuffed and chipped, awaited her across the table from Albert. She sat.
“I went to Eddie’s funeral.”
“Yeah, I heard it was today. You look nice. How was it?”
“Quiet. Only, maybe, twenty people. I heard it was delayed because his family is from out East. They wanted to find everyone and get them here. He was cremated months ago, you know.” Albert was silent for a moment.
“Look, Albert—we only have an hour. Will you let your lawyer defend you properly or do you still want to make a guilty plea? That means you will be guilty of manslaughter.” She stared crossly at him as she spoke. You never let me quit. How come you get to bail out?
He made a clicking sound and looked up at a row of windows near the ceiling.
“You bait that food truck guy into a fight, swinging a hockey stick at him, for God’s sake. He cracks his head open falling on the sidewalk before you land a blow. You play the fool in court and suddenly manslaughter is on the table.” We’re still a mess, Albert, we’re still a mess.
“Like I told you, Suzanne, I’ll plead guilty. Save the taxpayers the cost of a trial. It don’t matter, Suzanne. It’s better that way. I’ll be fine in there, you know. Plus, I’ll get decent medical—regular check-ups and all. I know the food is shitty but I don’t eat bugger-all anymore anyways. Besides, the guys in that place are my speed, right? I’ll get along. I ain’t worried. I’ll read, listen to radio—it won’t be bad, honest.”
“Bullshit. They are not what you think, not at all. Besides, little brother, I didn’t beat cancer, twice, as you damn well know, so you could hoist a white flag and spend the time you have...spending time in prison! And look—legally, even if you showed some intent, you didn’t really do anything, you waved the stick at him but that didn’t kill him.”
Albert started to respond but she carried on, her voice rising. “Also, Einstein...What about weed? Booze?”
“I hear the dope in the Stony Mountain pen is better’n outside. Besides, maybe I can try gettin’ sober. I feel okay, don’t miss it that much right now to tell you the truth. It’s weird—but that’s the way it is.”
Liar. They were quiet for a moment. A light rain was falling and a leaky clerestory window channeled a slow drip inside that landed with a regular beat, marking time.
“You didn’t do yourself any favours at the bail hearing.”
Albert’s face reddened and he laughed, snorting as he recalled his antics. “C’mon, you gotta admit that was a hoot. That’s how I roll.” He smirked. With a scoff, he searched for a cigarette, then realized he had none. He swallowed hard to ward off a coughing fit. “Wish they let you smoke in here.”
“Smoke? If you weren’t so stubborn, you would have followed doctor’s orders and quit already.”
Suzanne sighed, slow and controlled. She opened the file folder she carried and placed it on the table. “Okay, Albert. As I was saying, it looked like your courtroom performance was done just to be disrespectful. Mocking. Ranting about how Eddie was a low-life and deserved what he got. What the hell? If you get that same judge at trial your lawyer will have to ask for a different one; prejudice, you know. That’s means more time for you here in Remand.”
He coughed hard into his sleeve and his teeth were stained pink when he grinned at her. He shrugged.
His mind is made up. How do I change it? They were both silent as the drops landed on the cement floor with a metronome’s precision.
“Alright. Albert, it’s absurd, but if that’s what you want... I mean, you’re in a damn wheelchair and you never hit him. A manslaughter charge is ludicrous. I know your lawyer is ready to fight for you and she’ll win too! But, in spite of everything, if a guilty plea to manslaughter is what you really want. Then that’s that. I won’t argue anymore. So be it, brother.”
“Yeah. Don’t sweat it, Sis. I’m tougher than any of them phony gangsters in Stony anyhow. I’ll just pick a fight with the biggest bastard on the first day and after that, I’ll be like goddamned John Ferguson, eh? No one will mess wit’ me!”
She stared down at her hands, fidgeting with the hem of her jacket. It’s a life sentence. Three years, or whatever he gets, it’s a life sentence and he knows it. They talked for awhile. Small talk about the NHL play-offs, the weather, their two years in Belize. She mentioned the detention centre Correctional Officer, Dumont, who knew Chris.
“Yeah, that Dumont guy, he’s been okay with me. Decent enough. Seems like a good guy. Played for the Selkirk Steelers, eh? He’s no Albert Plett, mind you, but not a bad egg, I’d say.” He cocked his head and changed the subject. “Hey, know what I been thinkin’ of lately?”
“Little Belle. Our magic doeling. Remember?”
“Of course. Yes, Belle. Tinkle, tinkle,” she smiled, thinking back.
“Yeah. That’s her. That was a hard time, that spring, but I remember how you came around. And all the shit you went through in Belize. But you recovered again and you deserve something for that, a reward.”
Suzanne looked at him, remembering how he looked in his glory days. He was shriveled now, his cheeks hollowed out. His face was scuzzy with grey stubble, a pair of Dollar Store readers perched on his bent nose, his scarecrow shoulders caved in, pinched forward. Only his forearms, still corded and twitching like horseflesh showed his former self—strong and lithe, a feared body checker, a tough kid with a chip on his shoulder, a construction worker with an engineer’s mind and a big heart and always good for a joke or a drink after work.
“Belle was just a baby goat. You were the magic kid. You did it, Albert, not her,” she said, her voice cracking.
Dumont tapped on the door and then opened it. He stood uneasily and reminded them. “Sorry. Time. Time please,” he said, his voice echoing in the empty hallway. “You’re the last visitor in the building. I’ll leave it open now and just close it as you leave, please Miss.” He nodded and left to stand waiting a dozen paces down the hallway.
Suzanne pulled a hanky from her sleeve and dabbed at her eyes, then looked across at her brother. She stood.
“I’d stand up, but…” Albert joked. His eyes were red.
He shook his head and held his hand out. She squeezed it and he glanced up at her and spoke in a half-whisper, leaning forward. “No, not a thing. Nothing more. I don’t need anything, Sis, but maybe you do, eh? Just look out for yourself now. Spend some time with Dumont there. Pretty sure the guy is single.” He stopped to clear his throat raggedly and quickly wiped at his lips with a yellowed tissue.
She let herself out and walked down the corridor. The door clicked shut like a gun being cocked.
“Hey, Suzanne!” Albert called out. She turned and walked back.
“Yes?” she said. She could hear his heavy breathing through the locked door.
“Remember this, remember, what was on the kitchen wall, under the clock in the old farm house?”
She felt her face grow warm and she wished she could touch her brother’s hand again. “You who are treasured, do not be afraid. Peace be to you; take courage and be courageous!”
“That’s it, Sis. Good ole Daniel. Words to live by. You promise?”
“I promise.” She listened but he said no more.
The hum of the fluorescent lights increased as she neared Dumont’s brightly lit desk. He stood and nodded as Suzanne approached.
“I see you’re on the roster again tomorrow, Miss Plett. See you then. By the way, if you don’t mind my saying so, you look especially lovely today. I hear you have your health back. We were all very happy to hear that.”
“Thank you, Officer Dumont,” she replied, matching his formal manners. She noticed his squarish jaw and the way he had shaved his sideburns down into points on his cheeks. “Goodnight, Richard. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Image Attribution: noricum from Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons