The Barking Dog

By Cordelia Strube

The Barking Dog
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“Told with such humour and suspense that it’s hard to put down . . . A rare achievement, an unstintingly honest, hilarious, and dreadful delight.” — Globe and Mail

Greer Pentland is having a challenging year. Her teenaged son, Sam, is on trial for the murder of two senior ... Read more


Overview

“Told with such humour and suspense that it’s hard to put down . . . A rare achievement, an unstintingly honest, hilarious, and dreadful delight.” — Globe and Mail

Greer Pentland is having a challenging year. Her teenaged son, Sam, is on trial for the murder of two senior citizens, a crime allegedly committed while he was sleepwalking. Greer is also battling breast cancer, a disease that has left her with a litany of physical side effects and deep anger toward the incompetence of the medical profession.

Yet, in the face of all these obstacles, Greer’s story is full of hope and delicious dark humour. Her indelible strength is fuelled by her unconditional love for her son and the moral support she receives from her 88-year-old aunt, a chain-smoking, vodka-swilling, vitamin-popping senior whose continual commentary on the morbid news of the day is wickedly funny and provocative. This novel about one courageous woman’s fight to survive in a post-millennium culture gone mad is heroic, heart stopping, and affecting.

The Barking Dog, the fifth novel from Cordelia Strube, Canada’s pre-eminent writer of urban fiction, is an unforgettable portrait of modern life in these media-saturated, apocalyptic times.

Excerpt

One

It started with me thinking there was a man in the house. I’d wake Jerry. “There is no man,” he’d say.

It was around this time he started screwing what’s-her-face.

So I’d tell myself I was imagining things, that maybe I wanted there to be a man, that maybe my man-phobia was what Jerry would call an attention-getting device. But suspecting that the man was inside my head didn’t make me feel any better. Because I started to fear that he was embodying something hideous in my makeup, something I couldn’t face. I would’ve preferred to have been robbed. I could’ve called somebody, dialled 911. I’ve always wanted to dial 911. The thugs-in-blue could’ve come with guns.

I don’t know what I imagined the man was doing in my house because in the morning nothing was out of place; the stereo was intact, the TV, the VCR—objects I hated and would’ve liked to have had stolen. Objects that absorbed my beautiful son and transformed him into an unresponsive, twitching blob.

The man stayed in my consciousness for a couple of years. I dreaded going to bed because he’d be lurking downstairs, fingering my belongings, sneering at the wedding photo and Jerry’s phallic golf trophy (another object I would’ve liked to have had stolen). I’d knocked the stupid thing over at least five times, and once threw it at Jerry. It was unbreakable.

I never went to look for the man myself. I don’t know what I was afraid of: that he didn’t exist?

The prosecution’s been trying to sniff out “dysfunction” in my family: personality disorders, anti-social behaviour. Something that would constitute conditioning for a psychopath. I worry that on the stand my dysfunction will show. Which would be bad for Sam. I’m supposed to appear normal, just as he’s supposed to appear normal.

The point about the man business is that it occurred just before I realized that Jerry was screwing what’s-her-face. Not the one he married, but the first one—my neighbour—who borrowed things from me: garden tools, blankets, roasting pans. She had her own husband. They played golf together, went to Florida and Arizona to try different courses. So I don’t understand what she was doing with my husband. But then I’ve never understood what’s so great about golf.

Now I know that “the man” was the cancer stalking me. The cancer was embodying the hideousness in my makeup.

The joke is that Jerry was diagnosed with it first. I’d told him to go to the doctor because he was chronically fatigued, beyond his regular Jerry-not-wanting-to-do-anything-with-his-family fatigue. He went for tests, then more tests. I took the doctor’s call because Jerry was too scared to talk to him. He stood watching me, his face flaccid, waiting for the verdict. I decided that even if the news was good, I’d appear grim, just to rattle Jerry.

“Yes,” I said sombrely to the doctor. “I understand . . . unhunh . . . unhunh . . . yes . . . I see.” Something like that. I was simply absorbing his diagnosis, not repeating it. But Jerry panicked before I even got off the phone. He walked into the closet and closed the door.

It was thyroid cancer in the early stages. There was to be minor surgery and radiation. Small stuff compared to what I would have to go through.

I stared at the closet. “Come out, Jerry.”

No response.

I considered my options. I could’ve pleaded with him to come out, assumed the womanly role of nurturing and assured him that everything was going to be just fine, not to worry, poochy woochy. Or I could’ve lit a match, slipped it under the closet door and made a run for it. Or I could’ve blockaded him in there. Fed him occasionally.

I did none of this because I didn’t understand yet that life is the very second you’re in. You don’t dick around wasting seconds.

I went downstairs and finished the birthday cake I’d baked for Sam which he hadn’t touched. I yanked out the ten candles that hours before I’d carefully arranged. Consuming slice after slice, I felt sorry for myself for being a mother so wronged, so misunderstood. Then I found myself hoping my husband would die from the cancer, that it would spread up his throat into his brain because this would mean I could sell the house and move to Hawaii. I imagined tropical breezes, ocean spray, rum cocktails. I imagined my boy, rejuvenated by the salt air, running towards me calling “Mummy.”

He never hugs me anymore. Never. To think I once had the freedom to hold him whenever I wanted. To think I was that lucky and didn’t know it.

Eventually, Jerry came out of the closet and shuffled downstairs. I took my time telling him, only at the end admitting that the oncologist wasn’t terribly worried about it.

It was after his course of treatment, when he was considered to be in the clear, that he started “playing nine holes” with the first one, the neighbour who borrowed the pots and pans. I had the impression he was living life with relish, now that he’d been faced with his own mortality.

Which I can understand. It’s sneaking around I can’t stand. Don’t lie. I hate lies. Politicians who lie should be thrown out of government. Or failing that, shot.

I asked him how he thought Sam felt about his dad screwing the neighbour. He said Sam didn’t know. I said of course he does. He asked if I told him. I said of course not. Children know. They always know. Then I told him to get out. Shouted at him, threatened him with lawyers. We didn’t actually throw things that time. At one point I considered hurling the phallic golf trophy. But he left with little resistance. I think he was relieved. They shacked up for a bit, then she went back to her husband. Maybe he was a better golfer.

I was hurt, of course, self-esteem impaired. It seemed important at the time. Now it’s impossible to comprehend how brain-dead Jerr could’ve had such an effect on me. But life’s like that. You go through these things that seem to tear you apart. Years later you wonder why. Years later you’re going through some other thing that seems to be tearing you apart.

I told Jerry that it was his job to explain his side of the divorce to Sam. He never did. At first, I said lame things like we don’t love each other anymore. But during the divorce proceedings I found myself referring to Sam’s absentee father as anal-retentive, emotionally retarded, small-minded, dick-driven, cheap.

Anyway, this is all ancient history. The point is my son. What happened to my son?

In the courtroom, everybody stares at me. How could she give birth to such a monster? How can she stand it? What did she do to drive him to it?

Well, you know what? I wasn’t even around. I’d actually won a raffle, a weekend pass to a spa. I never win anything, and spas give me the willies—strangers slapping oil all over you and squeezing your zits. But I thought, I’ve got to try it, it’s in the country, it’s free, maybe aromatherapy will change my life. I hated it; at one point a taut Chinese woman was rubbing me with rocks. Anyway, I had no idea what my boy was up to, didn’t even hear about it until I came home greased. By this time, Sam had been in an adult jail for twenty-four hours. He’d lied about his age, possibly to protect me but more likely to protect his part-time job as a security guard at my brother-in-law’s hospital. Jerry got the job for him, told him to lie about his age because Jerry got a paper route when he was three or something and believes that all enterprising young men should get jobs and become millionaires by the time they’re twelve. It used to drive him wild when Sam would spend his allowance rather than stash it in his piggy bank.

So I think about that often: If I’d been home, would he have done it? Probably. I don’t keep tabs on him anymore; it’s futile. Which made the whole bail issue terrifying. When the schlep of a duty counsel advised me that we could apply for bail—meaning write a huge cheque or post the house—I thought, You must be joking, take the killer home? But then he was there, my lost son, looking at his hands, tapping his feet, trembling even though the room wasn’t cold. The duty counsel, awash in sweat, kept removing his lawyer duds, first his jacket, then his vest, tie. Of course we must try for bail, I said. The Crown will oppose it, he advised me. No, really? It was then I called Jerry who contacted the hot-shot criminal lawyer. I was rattling within during the proceeding. We had to sit through what felt like several hundred requests for bail before it was our turn. The whole time I was thinking, Please don’t lock him up, please lock him up. I couldn’t believe any of it was happening, had happened. I didn’t know who my son was anymore, what he could do. Our lawyer was worth his hundreds of dollars, a Houdini eluding the Criminal Code. He made it sound like boys kill people every day, no big whoop, and the poor kid has no criminal record, no motive and no memory of the incident which suggests, if in fact he did commit the crime, he may have been unconscious of his actions and therefore not responsible because he had no knowledge or appreciation of what he was doing. I think the judge let Sam off because he wanted the lawyer to button it so His Honour could proceed to lunch. Then there were papers to sign, a recognizance and a document registered against the title of the house, which was the surety payable should Sam skip town.

But the conditions caused me some sleep deprivation. Every couple of hours, I’d wake and check his room to make sure he hadn’t made a run for it. Days should have been easier as he was expected to attend school, but it was June, exam time, meaning not his regular schedule. I had no way of tracking his movements. I’d ask feebly, “Do you have an exam today?” and he would mutter something unintelligible. I’d phone the school, talk to voicemail knowing my call would not be returned because the staff were busy planning their summer vacations. He was subject to a curfew, supposed to be home between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., but usually he’d show up those few minutes late; just enough time to cause my heart rate to zoom to three hundred beats per minute. And he was ordered to report to the police every forty-eight hours, which he did, but it was weeks before I stopped phoning the division to ascertain that he’d checked in. Now I never call. He’s a good boy. I think. Or anyway understands that jumping bail is a bad idea.

The thugs-in-blue advised me that I could have him rearrested at any time if I felt it was necessary. They’ve been itching to get their hands on him, the “rich kid” with the fancy lawyer.

After the remand hearing, driving home, I asked Sam if he had any idea why he’d done it. He repeated that he didn’t know if he’d done it since he had no memory of the incident. We were in the car, stopped in traffic. There’d been an accident, sirens wailed, a blood-thirsty crowd gathered. We sat in silence although his foot kept tapping.

“I have difficulty believing that,” I said finally.

“What?” His foot stopped.

“That you can’t remember anything.”

He shrugged, resumed tapping, turned on the radio, fiddled with the tuner until he found something obnoxious. He told me if I’d been there, he probably would’ve killed me. He said this without malice. As though killing people was normal, to be expected. Why? He wouldn’t tell me. Over the months since he was charged, we’ve had different versions of this conversation. He shrugs, avoids my eyes, stares at the TV. Is that shame? Remorse? What is it? He won’t tell me.

So I stare back at the excuses-for-human-beings who line up early outside the courtroom to get a front-row seat. I don’t understand why we’re so popular; have there been no child abuse/murder/sex crimes lately? Is the press so starved of ecological disasters, stock market crashes and savage warmongers that we’ve been upgraded to page three?

The gawkers have big appetites. During recesses, they munch potato chips and chew on Kit Kat bars. They have already condemned my son and are titillated by my despair. I have no answers for them. I am ashamed and distraught and enraged. I grieve for the little boy I knew. He did exist once. I’ve got the photographs.

Chapter Two

The judge appears to be drowsy today. Too many cocktails last night, or maybe he was at a cross-dressing party. I can see him in gold lamé and garters, fishnet stockings, glittery pumps, doing the mashed potato. I hate the old fart because he doesn’t listen. During the preliminary hearing he spent most of his time grumbling and telling the defence to “get on with it.” The defence irritates him, and the dull jury take their cues from him. Particularly the winner of the Sonny Bono look-alike contest who also happens to be the foreman. I think of O.J., and all his entertaining, expensive lawyers strutting about in their pink shirts and silk ties. Our lawyer, though expensive, is not entertaining. His robe sags from his shoulders as he shuffles about, wiping his nose every three minutes. Why? myself and the jury wonder. Is there snot on his moustache? He’s also balding and has some kind of scalp condition. The Crown, on the other hand, is a tall, blond and handsome football-player type. During his predictable opening statements, the female jurors eyed him lustily. As he expounded upon the overwhelming physical evidence, they sat with legs crossed, tightening the walls of their vaginas. He has been gleeful while calling forensic witnesses to the stand and almost peed himself when his top cop presented the jury with gory photographs of the murder victims. As the jurors’ faces paled, the football player swelled with self-satisfaction. An open-and-shut case, he was thinking.

Yesterday, a mentally ill man was shot to death by a cop. Two bullets landed in his head and one in his throat. A woman who witnessed the slaughter described the victim as surprised to be shot. The cop is claiming he acted in self-defence because the man, yards away from him, pulled a hammer from his coat. Now there’s a reason to shoot somebody. I always say, if he’s got a hammer, whack him. Before he became mentally ill, the dead man was in medical school.

I wonder what my jury would feel about the photos of the dead medical student’s head. What’s left of it.

The football player regularly reminds us that Sam rinsed the blood from his clothes before returning home. This would suggest knowledge and appreciation of the act. On the other hand, I know Sam. He hates dirt. He washes his hands frequently, showers twice a day. He will not wear a shirt twice before laundering it. He bleaches his whites. I’d say he’s borderline OCD. The fact that he cleaned up the mess doesn’t surprise me.

Baldy with the snotty moustache has to prove that Sam is not guilty by reason of non-insane automatism because he was sleepwalking when he committed the murders. Therefore he was rendered incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of his act, or knowing that his act was wrong. I’m trying to believe this. Baldy has rounded up hired-gun shrinks and psychologists who have attached electrodes to Sam’s head to measure his brain activity during sleep. They believe it is possible to snooze while clubbing people to death.

Jerry’s father used to sleepwalk. It was a family joke. In the morning, there would be food left over from his night’s foraging. Once, he started mowing the lawn, waking the neighbourhood. Less amusing was his habit of urinating in the closet.

But as far as I know, he never killed anybody.

When Sam started sleepwalking, we didn’t worry about it. Sometimes, before he got out of bed, he’d scream, in which case I’d go to him and try to offer comfort. But he’d stare at me glassily. His pupils would be dilated and his muscles tense. When I tried to console him, he’d be unresponsive or unintelligible. If he did wake up, he would have no recollection of what he’d been doing or dreaming. He peed on chairs a few times, but other than that he never caused harm. I told myself it was nothing to fret about, just a family trait, like receding hairlines and varicose veins. Besides, he’s always been an anxious kid. Anxious kids have nightmares. Fortunately, in his teens, the sleepwalking episodes became less frequent. I was hoping he’d outgrown them. But the security job at the hospital required that he work nights. It’s never been easy for him to fall asleep at night, never mind during the day. But it paid better than McDonald’s so we figured it was worth doing. The theory was that he would adjust. Besides, it was only for the summer, until he went back to school. And it kept us apart, providing me with an excuse for the complete lack of communication between us. Sometimes he’d fall asleep on the couch while watching soap operas. I’d turn the TV off and cover him with a blanket, then sit on the armchair and watch him; listen to his breathing. When he’s back to a normal schedule, I told myself, when I’ve finished being Hiroshimaed, things will get better. Like it could be that simple.

Only a year ago he sliced off the tips of two of his fingers trying to use Jerry’s tile cutter. I heard shrieks from the basement and found him staring down at the meat of his fingers on the floor. I tried to staunch the blood pouring from his hand with paper towels, but it was useless. He’d always become faint at the sight of blood and dissolved into the little boy I’d known. “Help me, Mum,” he whimpered. I drove him to a walk-in clinic, sat beside him in the waiting room, made him hold his hand over his head to reduce the flow to the wounds. At one point, he rested his head on my shoulder. I cling to this memory as if he were dead.

How does someone squeamish about blood beat people to death? Didn’t it gush, spurt, splat? The cross-eyed forensic expert testified that Sam must’ve made repeated wild swings with the shovel dripping in blood. Did he vomit before he rinsed it from his clothes?

The prosecution’s shrink experts state that Sam is barely out of a troubled childhood, a victim of an ugly divorce. We were neglectful parents, I in particular have been an unsupportive mother, sacrificing family for career. All this deduced from “psychological assessments” of Sam that took hours long. I get the impression that the more I’m made to look like a self-centred bitch, the better it is for the prosecution because self-centred bitches produce cold-blooded psychopaths. The experts are convincing and I’m beginning to agree with them. It is all my fault. Suddenly, a need to protect my son overwhelms me. I want to rush over to him, wrap my arms around his stiff shoulders, tell him everything’s going to be all right, Mummy’s here.

He’d probably spit in my face. He wants me to take no part in his war. If that’s what this is. Who are his enemies? Two golden agers watching TV on a Sunday afternoon?

I guess the divorce was ugly. I can hardly remember it, don’t want to remember it. The biggest problem was the fucker wouldn’t let me sell the house. The market was down, he insisted, we’d lose money. So Sam and I continued to live in the house of horrors, imagining the sounds of smashing dishes and hostile voices, robotic sex.

That was the tipoff, when Jerry didn’t want to boink me anymore. Not that I wanted to boink him, but sex is compulsory in marriage. You don’t have to talk to each other, just fornicate a couple of times a month and you’ll know you’re normal.

I cough loudly in an attempt to wake the judge. It doesn’t work. The excuses-for-human-beings gawk at me. Is that a smoker’s cough? they titter. Maybe she smoked when he was in the womb and that’s why he kills people. Maybe she drank and he’s suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome. Maybe she was a junkie, injected and snorted substances, smoked jangs, chewed mushrooms.

The prosecution refuses to believe that Sam didn’t know the old couple. They lived seven houses away, the football player points out, how could he not know them? I guess Blondie doesn’t live in the city where you can go for years without knowing your neighbours while inhaling the stench from their barbecues.

I cough again. The clerk looks at me. As does the victims’ only daughter who has come to court every day seething with hatred for my son. Sometimes I try to imagine being her, sitting motionless, visualizing what her defenceless parents must have had to endure. Did they scream, plead, weep? Did they lose control of their bowels before or after they lost consciousness? Apparently there was “excessive fecal matter” at the scene of the crime. I picture the blood and shit and busted skulls with the TV still going, a televised sermon. “Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world,’” a coiffed preacher intones. “‘Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness.’”

The blood begins to congeal around the bodies.

“Praise the Lord!”

What were heads are now swollen, pulpy masses. The blood darkens, the corpses stiffen.

The only daughter must want to see my only son burned alive.

--

I still haven’t figured out how to present myself as the mother of the murderer. As I’m under scrutiny doubtless my behaviour could influence the outcome of the trial. Should I convey remorse, since he isn’t? Should I cower in shame? Let the tears flow freely? How can I help my son?

The isolation I feel is not unlike what I felt during radiation therapy. Stripped of my paper smock, partially covered with a lead apron, my neck and mutilated chest positioned by a technician who said, “You must keep still,” then quickly fled, closing a heavy steel door behind her, provided me with an aloneness I’d never felt before. Isolated in the sealed chamber, my only company was the high buzzing as the radiation began, which soon mellowed into a low chant. While the laser beams ricocheted around the room, burning holes through me, the technicians, comfortable behind glass, discussed their babies and mortgages and SUVs; the lives they believed they controlled. I can never be that ignorant again, I realized.

Periodically memories jolt me. That day in the bakery, its shelves lined with doughnuts and pastries, cookies, cakes; a child’s paradise. “What do you want, sweetie?” I ask him.

“A whole wheat roll,” he replies.

“You have a choice of all these yummy things and you want a whole wheat roll?”

“Yes.”

A normal eight-year-old does not ask for a whole wheat roll when faced with butter tarts.

As the football player maligns my son, I feel the jury looking to me for argument. Again, I don’t know what expression to wear. The gawkers whisper, snicker and snort. As much as I realize that they’re low-lifes, I fear I will break under the burden of their disdain. During sleepless nights, I sense them outside, still watching, judging, wanting to see my son crucified. I lie in the darkness wondering if he is lying awake, feeling their disdain, or if he’s sleeping and about to get up and kill me. I wouldn’t mind this, if it were over quickly. In fact, I would’ve preferred he kill me in the first place. It would have freed me from the guilt I feel for having been a bad mother who put her baby in daycare, who felt defeated and therefore did nothing. And he could’ve scored my life insurance and headed for Hawaii to enjoy tropical breezes, ocean spray, rum cocktails.

Sometimes I ran away because I was afraid I’d hit him. I felt that impulse, that bolt of electricity in my arm. Is this what he felt when he started swinging the shovel? Is it genetic? Could I kill someone? Certainly there are obituaries I wouldn’t be saddened to read.

Seeing him all dressed up in his court clothes reminds me of his brief career as a child actor. A squash buddy of Jerry’s was in advertising and hired Sam for a few commercials. I thought Sam enjoyed the work, the attention, the money which he knew was being kept in trust for him until he turned eighteen. But one day he cut his face with an X-Acto knife. And hacked off his hair. I discovered the blood in the bathroom sink and his hair on the floor. I cleaned up the mess, my tears transforming his golden locks into clumps. I tried to talk to him about it. “Why did you do this?” I asked. He shrugged. “How could you do this?” I asked. He shrugged.

I put the hair in a plastic bag and showed it to Jerry. “Maybe he should see a shrink,” I said. “He doesn’t need to see a shrink,” Jerry said, “he’s just acting his age.” Which was what I wanted to hear. So what if my son slices his face with an X-Acto knife? Boys do that. It’s a hormonal thing.

The scars are still there, faint white lines, almost imperceptible to anyone but the mother. The hair’s in my dresser, its lustre gone. It looks like a dead mouse.

My point is he’s not a psychopath. I’ve read about psychopaths, they’re big news, you can’t help but read about them; psychopaths don’t deliberately self harm. And Sam has been known to be kind. Last year he volunteered at an old folks’ home, wheeled them out into the sun and listened to their boring stories. I had no idea why he was doing this. Because he missed my parents? He’d been the son they’d never had.

Baldy has recruited staff from the old folks’ home to testify to Sam’s niceness. Although I’m grateful for their testimony, I find it hard to believe that my foul-mouthed son is capable of such compassion.

He began wetting his bed when he was nine. In the morning, I’d find him curled up in piss with his hands over his head. “You’ll be late for school,” I’d warn and he’d respond with “Fuck off, you cunt-shitting bitch.”

I must not tell this to the football player.

Jerry excused Sam’s bedwetting and language by saying he hated his mother when he was that age.

Oh. So it’s okay then.

The spookiest, creepiest thing is that Sam has never admitted that, if he did kill these people, he is sorry. I fear that he’s incapable of “feeling sorry,” that he’s incapable of understanding what he has done. He thinks it’s a movie. He thinks it’s a murder mystery and he’s the star.

Baldy intends to push the fact that he was an exemplary student. He’s summoned two of Sam’s high-school teachers to testify. I have been privy to Sam’s teacher bashing, particularly of the teachers in question: Warty Morty and head-too-small-for-her-tits Miss Dubejsky. I am amazed that he was able to hide his true feelings from them. But then what are his true feelings?

Watching his profile, I can’t believe he did it. He has the face of an angel. Tears bubble up again and I feel the phantom pain in my missing breast. Sam found the cancer on me. He’s the reason I’m alive today. We were arguing, I was trying to stop him from going out with Jackie-the-slut. He pushed me, inadvertently bumping my breast. It remained tender for days, the lump became prominent. Maybe I should tell this to Baldy. He could make up a touching story about it. This child saved his mother’s life.

What would the gawkers think if they found out I only have one breast? That I got what I deserved? Raising a boy like that, they’d conclude, it’s no wonder she got cancer. What would they think if they’d seen me scrambling around the house this morning looking for my prosthesis? I take it out as soon as I get home because it rubs against the scar. The problem is, I can never remember where I put it. Once I found it in the fridge, behind the lettuce.

In the courthouse washroom, the excuses-for-human-beings ogle me in the mirror as they freshen their lipstick and powder their noses. They listen to me urinate. How can she pee? What kind of mother pees when her son is on trial for murder? Their gasps are audible when they spot me outside buying a hot-dog.

Jerry arrives. He can’t always make it because he’s busy raping and pillaging small businesses on the verge of bankruptcy. Natasha’s on his arm wearing a hat that looks like a constipated parrot. I wonder if she has the hots for the football player. Jerry just bought her an Audi for their anniversary which she doesn’t know how to drive. She has a kind of job, consumer reporting on a morning talk show. She gets her hair done and reports back on it. “It was almost a sexual experience,” I heard her say of a pedicure.

Now Jerry wants to sell the house to pay the legal bills. I don’t argue. But nobody’s buying. They know whose house it is.

Chapter Three

I’m showing a listing to a couple for the third time. I know they’ll buy the house, but they don’t. Or anyway, Hubby doesn’t. Wifey’s keen. The stained-glass windows and hardwood floors have mesmerized her. I smell foundation problems. This is why I hate residential real estate. I’m selling broken homes to people who’ll break their backs to pay for them. Commercial real estate was easier: better money and it was always just business. But commercial real estate isn’t what it used to be.

“It’s so sunny,” Wifey remarks. “We’ve never been here when it’s been sunny.”

“Great southern exposure,” I point out. “Fabulous for plants.”

So now I sell defective houses, making comments like, “It has a newer roof,” or “It’s very clean,” or “It’s certainly an original paint job.” I don’t like myself for this. I keep telling myself the residential stuff is just temporary. Right. As “temporary” as cancer.

The wife asks me about the fireplace. “It can probably be opened up,” I tell her, while being completely ignorant of the inner condition of the chimney. I always encourage buyers to hire a house inspector. But the house inspectors don’t look very hard. And anyway, if the buyers have their hearts set on the house, nothing short of a termite infestation will dissuade them from closing the deal.

“Honey . . .” Wifey calls. She’s eager to show him something, but he’s preoccupied with the sliding-glass doors to the deck which stick.

“It’s a realistic price for the location,” I say, in an effort to distract him. “Even so, I think we can get them down a bit.”

“Honey . . .” She points out some detail in the woodwork above the dud of a fireplace. “Isn’t that sweet?” She’s imagining Christmas here. Chestnuts roasting over the open fire. Will she give birth to a son who will murder? She doesn’t think so. She believes they will produce glorious children who will produce glorious lives. It will all begin in the house with the leaky basement. And she’s probably right. What are the chances of giving birth to a murderer? One in a thousand? One in a million?

Yet I was apprehensive when he was kicking around in my womb. Other mothers worried that their children might be born mentally or physically impaired. I worried about giving birth to a sociopath. Because I believe they are born, not made. I was relieved when Sam grew into a fragile little boy with a constantly running nose. He didn’t poke the eyes out of cats or stick pins into rodents. He collected caterpillars in jars and hammered holes into the lids, enabling them to breathe. Then he waited patiently for them to turn into butterflies. I emptied the jars while he was sleeping so he wouldn’t wake up to dead caterpillars. “They must’ve turned into butterflies,” I’d say when he presented me with the empty jar. “They must’ve squeezed through the holes and flown away.” He’d collect more, watch them even more closely.

But when he was nine, he stopped crying. His grandparents died. He was supposed to go up to their cottage as he did every summer. He’d been looking forward to it, had planned renovations to his tree house. When I explained that they were no longer with us, he accused me of lying. After Jerry confirmed the news, Sam sat tearless in front of the TV for days. Years later, he accused me of wanting them to die, not caring that they were dead. He was right.

Last night I had the dream again. The attacker was swinging at my feet, beating them to a pulp, crushing my ankles. Then he moved to my shins. I heard them splinter, my kneecaps shatter.

The attacker is always faceless, bodiless. I’m only aware of the force behind his blows. He never tires and I know that within minutes he’ll be battering my body, my arms, my head. I beg him to fracture my skull, to knock me unconscious. I plead to be struck dead. But he continues to bludgeon me in the same sequential manner and I can do nothing but wait.

I woke telling myself it wasn’t that bad. Sam smashed their skulls. He did not assault their bodies. He only smashed their skulls. Only.

--

The surgeon tells me to lift my shirt but doesn’t touch me while he examines the incision. He looks repulsed. I don’t know why since it’s his handiwork he’s looking at. Unless he had an intern stitch me up while he dashed off to shtup a lab technician. He ambles back to his desk.

I fasten my bra, pull my shirt back down. “Did you know,” I ask for openers, “that more women have died from breast cancer this century than soldiers in all the wars combined?”

“Who told you that?”

“I read it.”

“You read too much.” He has reprimanded me for reading before, because when I was first diagnosed I spent hours in the library perusing cancer books. I never actually borrowed the books because that would’ve meant I had cancer, and I was still pretending that I just had a little hyperplasia, no big deal. Besides, I didn’t want the snooty librarians to know I was sick; signing out breast cancer books suggests you have breast cancer. Instead, I’d sneak a chair into a corner and hunch over the books, always keeping my hands over the cover to obscure the title.

I tuck in my shirt. “A 36.6 percent increase since 1969, that’s pretty scary.”

“Increase in what?”

“Breast cancer. It kills fifteen Canadian women daily.”

“Don’t waste your time with statistics.”

“So you don’t buy that one-in-eight line?”

He starts scribbling in my file which is bulging with test results and surgical reports. “That’s deceiving. It’s over a lifetime. Lots of things can kill you over a lifetime.”

“That’s comforting.” I watch him scribble, feeling like the naughty girl sent to the principal’s office. The naughty girl who can do nothing but wait for the principal to pronounce his sentence. “I’d like to talk statistics,” I venture, “specifically to do with me.”

“I suggest you ignore statistics. For a few years you’ll be convinced every ache and pain is cancer. That’s normal.”

“I’m worried about my bones, that it’s spreading to my bones.”

“Have you got pains in your bones?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Your bone scan was negative.”

“Yeah, but nothing shows up until it’s advanced.”

“We’ll do another scan in a few months.”

This is not a cheering prospect. “Bone scan” means incarceration in the nuclear medicine department. A technician injects bone-seeking, radioactive fluid into your arm which collects in any area of the bone where there is “abnormal” cell activity. It takes the phosphorous compound two hours before they can actually see anything. You have to wait around with nuclear waste in your body before they can look for more cancer in your body.

“What if I do feel pain in my bones?”

His eyebrow twitches, hysterical woman, he’s thinking. “If the pain is constant, metastasis may be there. As I said, we’ll do another bone scan.” He fiddles with something in his lab coat pocket, takes it out, fondles it. It looks like a small aerosol container, maybe mouthspray. In seconds, he’ll open wide and squirt. “Try not to be obsessed about this,” he adds. “It doesn’t help and it may harm.”

The idea that I might be harming myself makes me start to dribble out of my left eye. He’s advised me that the reason I only tear out of my left eye and sweat out of my left armpit is that he removed many lymph nodes.

“I’m still weak all the time,” I whimper. “I want to sleep all the time.” I know he wants to boot me out of his office, but I waited an hour and forty-five minutes to see him. I need him to listen to me. “Do you believe this stuff about stress causing cancer?”

He sighs wearily. Why is he in this business if he finds breast cancer patients so tedious? “I believe that stress can inhibit the immune system and should be avoided.”

“What if you can’t avoid it?” He must know about the murders. Everybody knows about the murders.

He shrugs. “A lot of women with breast cancer are under chronic stress. So it would seem there is a connection there. I suggest you set yourself up in an ideal environment for healing.”

An ideal environment for healing? What planet is he on?

“Keep up your self-examinations,” he advises. “Early detection is key.”

“What if the lump’s tiny? I read that they can be smaller than peas, snuggled deep in the tissue. Some women can’t even feel their lumps. Dr. Love, that American surgeon, have you heard of her?”

He stares at me as though I’ve just crapped on his carpet. “Yes.”

“She says,” I persist, “if women find their lumps, it’s in the shower, or rolling over in bed, not doing self-exams. She says most women are too scared to do them.”

Both his eyebrows twitch. “Let me ask you something. Is this reading helping you?”

“I think I should stay informed.”

“There’s informed and then there’s misguided.”

“What I read about mammograms giving false positives and missing the real thing isn’t misguided—it’s fact. And pathologists being overworked, looking at slides till they can’t see straight.” I’m speaking really fast, like the little girl who’s so excited about having the correct answer she blurts it out unintelligibly. “Mistakes are made,” I sputter. “Did you read that story about the poor woman who underwent chemo and radiation for a brain tumour that turned out to be benign? She’s never going to recover from that treatment. Her immune system’s toast, she’s in constant pain. There was a picture of her in the paper, she’s brain-damaged, bloated and bald.”

“Those stories are rare.”

“But it happens.”

“I’m not saying it doesn’t. I’m saying, does it help you to read about it?”

“Probably not.”

“Precisely.” He closes my file and stands. “Why don’t you try to forget about it for a while?”

“I’m missing a breast. I can’t forget that.”

He swiftly reaches behind me as if to grab me by the scruff of the neck and hurl me out of the room, but instead he snatches a sweater which is slung over my chair. “You’re one of the lucky ones,” he tells me.

As he propels me out the door, I hear him squirt.

In the waiting room a bald woman sits crying. She’s young, too young. Other patients watch her fearfully. They have no comfort to give. They can’t even comfort themselves.

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