The Last Chance Ladies' Book Club
By Marlis Wesseler
Eleanor Sawchuck believes she deserves to spend her last years in peace, perhaps even in the happiness of pursuing a December romance. But then Donald Eston, a man whose abusive past only she and her book club know about, moves into her seniors' complex. Not only are Eleanor ... Read more
Eleanor Sawchuck believes she deserves to spend her last years in peace, perhaps even in the happiness of pursuing a December romance. But then Donald Eston, a man whose abusive past only she and her book club know about, moves into her seniors' complex. Not only are Eleanor and her friends uncertain what to do about him, they can't be sure they know the truth. After one of her friends dies and her lover becomes ill, Eleanor decides it's time to learn some facts from Eston's son, and to finally confront Eston himself.
Marlis Wesseler's first collection of short stories, Life Skills (Coteau Books, 1992), was a finalist for both the Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award and the 1993 Regina City Book Award. Imitating Art was published by Coteau in 1994 and Elvis Unplugged was published by Oberon in 1998. Wesseler's stories have appeared in Grain and NeWest Review, as well as anthologies such as The Old Dance (Coteau Books, 1986), Out of Place (Coteau Books, 1991) and Lodestone (Fifth House Publishers, 1992). She makes her home in Regina.
Spring finally came again, wetter than usual, and by June everyone was talking about climate change. Marcia, the activity coordinator, decreed the next few days to be Caribbean Week; maybe, Eleanor thought, in a superstitious effort to bring on summer weather. A series of Sidney Poitier movies were shown. Harry Belafonte albums were played over the sound system and one of the local teachers presented a slideshow of her holiday in Jamaica. A steel drum band was booked for entertainment that afternoon, and tables moved to the side to clear the floor for dancing.
“A steel drum band!” Eleanor said. “Maybe there’ll be some Harry Belafonte lookalikes. ”
“Huh. ” Andrew touched her hand in mock jealousy.
“Don’t count on it,” Fern laughed, pointing at the poster. “It’s a bunch of Shriners from Saskatoon. ”
Several jocular middle-aged white men trooped into the lounge to set up their equipment. Instead of the ungainly oil barrels Eleanor had expected, thick-sided bowls of stainless steel glinted, swinging on thin black supports. One of the musicians, glancing at the audience, smiled in surprise. “Miss Albany. ” He came over to their table and held out his hand to Fern, who shook it automatically. “Remember me?”
She regarded him blankly, then smiled. “You must be an old student, but I’m not as young as I once was. ”
“Of course, it’s been forty years. ” He laughed. “I might have changed a bit, but I’d recognize you anywhere. ” He introduced himself. “Tony Anderchuck. ”
“Well!” Fern was trying to recall who he was while giving the impression she remembered. “And what do you do in Saskatoon?”
“Oh, I’m in sales,” he said, rather enigmatically. “But this,” he waved his arm at the band, “is what I’d like to do all the time. ”
“You used to bring your dog to school!” Fern blurted this out, happy to have finally placed him.
His expression softened with memory. “Yeah, he used to follow me and wait. Couldn’t make him stay home. Old Jigsy. ”
After he settled in with the band, ready to play, Fern nudged Eleanor. “Tony. ” She nodded her head towards him. “Caught him blowing frogs up with a straw once and gave him the strap. I bet he remembers that. ” Eleanor caught a glimpse of Fern as she was forty years ago, someone who, as one of her former students told Eleanor, never put up with any shit.
The band started up in full force with “Day-O” and continued with standard Caribbean favourites almost non-stop until they launched into “Jamaican Farewell. ” People clapped and swayed with the music. A young orderly from the second floor shuffled a two-step over to Bea Armitage, enticing her to dance.
What the Shriners lost in attempting Caribbean accents, they gained in enthusiasm: their perspiring faces above the shiny steel instruments looked euphoric. There were several couples dancing now. Eleanor swayed slightly to the rhythm. She glanced over at Andrew tapping his fingers on the table and thought about how she used to dance with Orest. She remembered the time they tried to learn to jive at their nephew’s wedding, completely embarrassing Dennis. She would give her right arm to be able to dance just one more time.
Bea and the orderly were really cutting the rug, keeping graceful time to the music, and her face glowed. She didn’t look young, but she looked beautiful. Half the room was up and moving now; Eleanor was envious even of Violet Gunderson dancing with a woman friend, although they weren’t very good. As they bounced by, she saw a shadow near the doorway move into the light. Donald Eston stood blocking the entrance but seemed to have no intention of coming in until he caught sight of Bea. He straightened his spine, smiled amiably and almost sauntered over to her. He tapped the orderly on the back, cutting in. The orderly, a rather pudgy young man, grinned, play-acting an old-fashioned bow, and Bea danced off with Eston, still sporting her beatific glow. Making an effort to stand straight, he danced very well.
“The place is hopping,” Andrew said. Seeing that he was enjoying himself, Eleanor tried to relax again into something other than resignation. Andrew smiled and for a surreptitious moment, took her hand. Fern glanced at them, then glanced quickly away.
Eleanor had the passing thought that it was just as well Andrew couldn’t dance either. She would hate to see him dancing with someone else, or to feel she was slowing him down. Fern wore the tense look she always had at dances, half hoping and half fearing someone would ask her. She only danced well when she’d had too much to drink.
Eston seemed tired already. Eleanor could see he found it an effort to stand upright, and that he was ready to quit when Hannah Sundine’s husband cut in. What was his name? Karl. Hannah wasn’t there, Eleanor noted. Bea was well on her way to being the belle of the ball.
Today it was more obvious than usual how attractive Bea was; maybe Eston was simply an ordinary man interested in women his own age. But would someone with all his marbles want to court someone with dementia? Maybe abusive men weren’t interested in sex but in power. Maybe it was Bea he was interested in hurting.
As soon as Eston quit dancing, he left the room, still carrying himself straighter than usual, and it was then that Eleanor noticed Chandra standing in the doorway watching them all, half hidden in her secretive way. As Eston passed her, he put what seemed to Eleanor a proprietary hand on her head, just for a moment, and continued on his way.
The music seemed too loud now. My heart is down, my head is turning around. The room had acquired a surreal look, the aged dancers performing a ritual she no longer wished to be part of. She was glad when she saw Marcia catch the eye of the band leader and tap her wristwatch.
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