Opening the old notebook, an aroma flutters from its pages: not mold, not dust, but love gone sour, the ripe odour of hate. Yet all its pages seem untouched, immaculate as prize-winning roses. A virgin notebook. Then I glimpse his dense scrawl on a few pages in the middle. There’s the stench.
As I read, I can see him, many years ago, cigarette burning between ochre fingers, deflowering the book with his sordid descriptions of my mother. His pen halts as he puts cigarette to lips, its long ash falling onto the page. Quickly, he brushes it off, just as he would like to brush her off, gone with the flick of a wrist. He burns with anger. Many years ago.
I pour some whiskey into a little glass the colour of rubies, the colour of his anger. And mine. I down it. Picking up a snow globe from the mantel I give it a good shake. I’d give every object in his house a good shake if I thought they’d reveal something about my dad. What secrets are held in a chicken-motif eggcup, a silver candlestick, a ceramic ashtray? Or a set of liqueur glasses, one in every colour of a jewel-toned rainbow.
Except for the ruby one, the glasses are lined up on a shelf in his dining room like little trophies, which I find strange since they were a gift from a kid he didn't like very much - me. I got them at the five and dime down the street, where I also got candy, and then later when I was a teen, makeup. The latter had to be kept secret; if Dad caught me with even a trace of lipstick or mascara on, he'd launch into a loud litany of insulting names: tramp, trollop, Jezebel. I actually liked the last one - I'd seen the movie of the same name, with Bette Davis, and got the impression that Jezebel was a pretty fabulous lady.
Dad resented all three of us after our mother left, but mostly me. He had to show some respect for the eldest as she became our main caregiver. And of course his only son got a pass. But me, I was just this mini replica of his unfaithful bride, in appearance and, they say, in temperament. When I was seventeen he told me I was behaving just like her, then launched all my stuff out the door.
I sit by the kitchen window. A late afternoon sunbeam licks at the whiskey I’ve now poured into the amethyst liqueur glass - violet for the bruises to my soul and psyche. The cat settles into my lap to bat at my necklace. Her soft paws on my collarbone aim to straighten my cynical bent, and it works. For the moment.
My intrepid brother comes crumping through the snow, an unbuckled trapper hat flapping about his ears. If I didn’t know better I’d expect that Midwestern Fargo accent to come out of his mouth. Alas, he’s as Canadian as ever.
“Cold, eh?” he says, stomping his feet outside the kitchen door.
“It’s nothing compared to back east.”
“Yeah, I remember that Christmas at your place. Brutal!” He shuts the door behind him. “Can’t imagine why you’d choose that over the west coast.”
I’d like to shake him harder than any damn snow globe right now. Can’t imagine? After I was kicked out I travelled as far away as possible from Dad’s scathing condemnations and sneering innuendos. For my sanity I stayed away. Imagine that. Brutal.
“I’m on my way to get snacks for movie night with the wife. Thought I’d stop by and see if you need anything.” He glances around furtively, as if to make sure I’m really packing up Dad’s stuff and not just hanging around in my underwear, eating bonbons and listening to old records.
“I’m good, thanks.”
I hand him whiskey in the sapphire glass - sapphire’s his birthstone. Following a sharp intake of breath from the shot, he wheezes: “Dad left you money.”
“What?” I say, dumbly.
“Yeah.” He cracks the tiniest smile. “Twenty thousand dollars.”
This news hits me like a giant snowball upside the head. When I find words they are: “A nickel for every stab to my heart.”
“Geez,” he says. “D’ya think you could tone it down, maybe be grateful?”
My brother has always accused me of being overly dramatic, which he attributes to my watching too many movies. I always counter that he’s being just like Jimmy Dean’s unfeeling dad in East of Eden.
“Have another shot?”
“No thanks,” he replies. “Gotta be on my way. Kathy’s tapping her nails by now.”
As he zips up his jacket I wonder if I should show him the small black notebook. I really just want to toss it into the fireplace where I’ve been burning Get Well cards - stacks of voluptuous cartoon nurses going up in smoke. Or I could just shred the three tainted pages then bury them in the snow where they’d freeze like Dr. Zhivago’s eyelashes.
“Weird shot glass,” my brother remarks, setting it down. Then he's gone.
As gold and aqua flames lap at more greeting cards, I wonder: Am I morally obligated to share with my sibs everything I find in this house? Or can I just go ahead and redeem this notebook by pasting pieces of old birthday cards over the barbed verbiage?
My mother had transgressed. And he cast her out.
Now, I too have been jilted in my life. So I understand what I didn’t before: that if you can make a cheating mate disappear, then that seems the best thing to do, just cut off the rotting limb. The problem is that if you have kids, then erasing half the parental unit will not create a clean cut. For me and my siblings, remnants of rot were left to poison our days.
So, what to do when, on some unsuspecting day in August, you find that your beloved has been playing you for a fool. Determined not to follow in my dad’s footsteps I did not banish the scoundrel but offered forgiveness. But some people never change, and so my endless well of absolution turned into a river of tears that my children and I were drowning in, no lifesavers in sight.
The fridge hums and hiccups. A plump chickadee sings outside the window before calling it a day. The cat turns lazily away from the bird and comes over to wind her tabby body around my legs. She purrs loudly as if to say: “The old guy had his good qualities too, like those tuna treats in the cupboard that he always got for me.” She meows: “By the way, could you get those treats out and share?”
A smile curls on my lips like her tail around my shin. The cat isn’t talking, of course, that’s just me coming out of my bitter stupor to realize I can share this inheritance with my kids - one in university, working at night; the other a struggling photographer. A bit of a lifesaver, even now.
I pour a shot into the emerald glass - green for a new life budding.
The book’s pages are expertly sewn in. A clean edge can be achieved by gently tearing them along the fold. I roll the severed pages up like mini diplomas, one for each of us kids. Placing them in the amber glass - amber for warmth and comfort - I sprinkle whiskey on them and strike a match. The boozy scent of diplomas flambé fills the air. I pick up a pen.
This salvaged notebook is now my compendium of salvaged dreams. On its first page I write: Thank you, Dad.