If Tina wasn’t so damn hard, I probably wouldn’t be doing this, but even a dog gets tired of being kicked after a while. In a year and a half, I’ll be eighteen anyway, so cutting out early’s no big whoop.
Wonder if she even knows I’m gone. The manager at Tim Horton’s gives her one Friday off a month and she “never wastes it on sobriety.” That’s what Uncle Steve says, and that’s when Tina tells him to Eff-Off. Says it that way if she thinks I’m in hearing distance. Of all the things she could do to behave like a mother, and she picks that one. As if a kid my age doesn’t know the stupid eff-in’ f-word.
But all that’s behind me now. Once we’re parked at Truro Raceway, I’ll be gone before anyone even knows I was there—out to the Trans Canada with my thumb up, bound for Halifax. Somebody’ll know where the auditions are. So You Think You Can Dance. They better pick me. If they do, it’s good-bye forever to Prince Edward Island and that hag that calls herself my mother.
Sitting here on the trailer floor talking up to you, I can say anything. Your big horse eyes are blinking at me while you chew, and that “huff” you make now and then is like you even agree with me. Nobody else listens like this, so I don’t mind you dropping bits of hay in my hair.
Paige says you’ve got a longer name, but she just calls you Gus. Happy to ride with you, Gus. Paige is pretty much my best friend, but she doesn’t know the half of what goes on with Tina and me. It’s her parents hauling us.
My mother’s jealous because I’m beautiful. Everybody says I am. They notice my hair first. It’s kinda like yours: slick and shiny with reds and golds bouncing off when the light hits it. Once I heard someone say it’s like mahogany. That’s a really expensive wood. I’ve Googled pictures and think it’s true, but I’d have to see the actual thing to know for sure.
My skin is extra smooth for a high school kid. Not one pimple. Eyes the color of those jade ornaments in the gift shops, except a little darker. Tina says the shade changes with my mood or what I’m wearing. I check it in the mirror a few times a day.
Did you know people’s eyes stay the same size all their lives? Mine are big, so I must have been all eyes when I came out. To hear Tina tell it, the rest of me was pretty big, too. But she was only my age then, with no one to tell her what to expect. She burst blood vessels in both eyes screaming to push me out, I was that big—or she was that scared.
Uncle Steve says I’ve got “a body that won’t quit.” I don’t mind him saying that, but when he outs with it around Tina, she gives him the eye and reminds him he’s her damn brother. He’s good to me, though, so what’s the harm in him saying what anyone else on the street will tell me to my face?
Tina won’t give Steve a break. She’ll waggle her rooty, orange head at him and say, “Don’t even think about puttin’ yer filthy paws on my Angel!” Then they’ll start shouting at each other—usually ‘til Tina throws something or tries to whack him. Steve’ll get her in a choke hold from behind ‘til she calms down or fakes him out by going slack until he relaxes. That’s when she’ll whip around and spit before he even thinks to duck. It usually ends with him stomping out the back-porch door calling her all kinds of gutter names and muttering about the house being his and something like, “I’m tryin’ to help yus, and all you do is spit in my face.”
There’s no figuring those two out but, whether she likes it or not, he’s all the family we’ve got.
People say I look like her when she was my age, but I can’t see it. She didn’t save any pictures. Says she can’t stand to think about that time—meaning when she was pregnant—let alone keep photos. And how does that make me feel?
My height and eye color actually come from Uncle Steve, although his eyes are too squinty to be what you’d call nice. Tina’s are a sort of dishwater grey. “Used up” is what Steve calls her when they fight—which is often and usually over me.
“A man would never believe you’re only thirty-two,” he’ll say. That’s hard for her to take, but it’s true. Paige’s mother is way older than Tina and still keeps herself good: Doesn’t smoke, has white teeth, nice hair. No roots.
Uncle Steve wants me to move in with him and Aunt Connie. Says he can do better by me because he has a whole lot more money than what selling Tim Horton’s coffee and making beds at the Tidy Rest Motel can pay. It really rubs Tina the wrong way that he’s made good and she hasn’t. Started at the bottom and worked his way up to car dealer. Tina doesn’t even have a car. Lost her license a couple years ago and had to sell it to pay the $1,200 drunk driving fine.
Steve has all the cars he wants. Plus ads on TV. He’s a household name in Charlottetown—all over the Island, really. I see cars passing on the road or in the parking lots with his name in silver screwed to the trunk lids: “Steve Bradshaw Pontiac-Buick.” It’s really the only family thing I have to be proud of, so I don’t mind if people mistake, sometimes, that I’m Steve’s daughter. Not like it matters. Tina will never tell me who my father is.
Steve’s why I’m here today. He offered me a summer job at the dealership when school’s out next month, but Tina said no—said way more than that, but you get the drift. Said she’s got me a stupid job at Tim Horton’s again. Like I want to pull on a scratchy smock every day and spend the summer serving Iced Capps to kids I go to school with. Under her watchful eff-ing eye.
Uncle Steve says I’d be good for business. “All you have to do is sit there at a little desk in the showroom looking pretty and answering phones,” he says. I’d be able to wear nice clothes—skirts and sundresses and pretty sandals. “The prettier, the better,” Steve says.
I jumped at it, but Tina cursed and roared when I told her and said I have to tell him no. That’s when I put two and two together about the auditions and Paige’s parents heading over to the race track with you.
I left Tina flaked out on the couch last night and snuck me and my backpack through the fence near the barns at the Charlottetown Driving Park. Found “MacKenzie Racing Stables” on the side of this trailer. Hid up there in the gooseneck under the horse blankets and coolers, waiting for them to load you up and drive us away this morning. Glad I didn’t spook you when I climbed down here. Must look like I slept in a barn, though. I’ll find the Ladies once we get to the race track and fix myself up before I hoof it out to the road. I’ll show that hateful bitch—won’t waste my looks like she did.
Me and Cory—he’s my boyfriend—we’ve been learning from the dancers on TV and got our moves down pat. We showed them off at a couple of school dances and cleared the floor both times. Everyone made a big circle around us when we were done and said, “You should be on So You Think You Can Dance!” I’m going to be. Cory’s not so keen, but I’ve been watching out for the closest auditions, and they’re in Halifax today.
Someday I will dance on Broadway, or in Las Vegas, or LA. Or I’ll marry a star or someone who makes a lot of money. It’s not like Cory and me are promised to each other or anything. We get up to a few things sometimes when we’re alone, but nothing too serious. I’m still a virgin—and I’m only telling you this: Cory’ll likely switch to guys someday, but that’s alright with me. He’s fun, and he keeps the jerks away.
If I wanted to get married and have kids, I could—in two seconds. Either one of the guys on Uncle Steve’s lot would take me just for the asking—except I wouldn’t ask. Too old. And creepy, too, the way they whistle and cluck every time I walk by on my way home from school. Like they’ve been waiting. I’ve seen Uncle Steve watching from behind the plate glass window of his office. He thinks it’s funny.
Steve’s pretty good to me all the same. He and Aunt Connie always give me Christmas presents—nice clothes that all the girls are wearing, not some cheap thing from Wal-Mart like Tina buys. Once they even took me to Florida on March Break. Tina put up such a fuss. She did NOT want me to go. Told me they were spoiling me and that I shouldn’t let Steve get that close. I was only fourteen, but I told her, “To Hell with you!” and went anyway.
That was the first time he tried something. Said he couldn’t resist, with this body in that bikini. I stopped his hand pretty good but, still, all that week whenever Connie wasn’t looking he’d sneak up behind and snap my suit top or pull out the bottom. “Pretty nice view down there,” he’d whisper—once almost in front of Connie and their two little girls. I didn’t say anything to Tina when I got home. Wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. But I said no thanks last March when they invited me again.
I don’t worry about working with Uncle Steve or those other two dorks at the car dealership, though. I’m used to men going all gaga over me, and I can handle it. Well, how about that? Didn’t realize we’re stopped. Is this Truro already? Truck doors slamming. Jump up and get out of here—Shit! There’s Mr. MacKenzie at the side door, jaw hanging to his knees.
“Jay-zus-Mary-and-Joseph!” He’s blinking hard. Over his shoulder, he says, “Clair! Clair, come see this.”
Where the eff’s my pack? Gus is straining back on his tether, rocking the trailer. “Easy, Gus!” I say—too loud, which only makes it worse.
Mr. MacKenzie piles in, pushing me into the corner. He takes the horse by the halter. I can tell he’s trying to keep his voice calm for Gus: “Get out of here,” he says. “Right now.”
He’s between me and the door. I’m still fishing for my pack. Gus is rolling his eyes and blowing through his nose.
MacKenzie says, “Get. The hell. Awayfrommyhorse.” and the way he says it makes anything possible, so I squeeze past him empty handed and stumble onto the turf. Backpack or not, I mean to get away from here as fast as I can.
Someone grabs my arm and whips me around. I’m looking right into the face of Paige’s mother.
“Angel! What are you doing here?”
“Long story,” I say, taking my arm back. “Needed a ride. Thanks—sorry about Gus. Bye!” and I cut out of there. Only a few steps and she’s dragging on the back of my jacket.
“Hold on a minute, Angel.”
She’s using her “mother voice”—that’s what Paige calls it.
“You’re not trying to run away from home, are you?”
Damn. I turn around to face her.
“What’s this all about?” she says.
“It’s nothing, Mrs. MacKenzie. I’m heading for Halifax, so I hitched a ride in your trailer. Gus was okay the whole way over from P.E.I. He just got scared at last.”
She’s got me by both shoulders with her warm mother hands, staring at me with an open look that says I can tell her anything, and I almost want to—but I can’t take the chance on being that soft.
“Gus will be fine, Angel. It’s you I’m worried about.”
When was the last time Tina said she was worried about me? Never; that’s when. I reach up to brush something from my cheek. Chaff, maybe; eyes watering from the bright sunlight after the dim trailer, perhaps. That’s when Mrs. MacKenzie gathers me in and, for some reason, I collapse against her.
“It’s gonna be okay, Angel,” she says, stroking my hair all the way from the top of my head to between my shoulder blades, over and over, and I can’t believe I’m sobbing. My own mother can’t make me cry; how can Paige’s mother do that? I pull back.
“Had a fight with your mom, eh?”
I should be heading out to the highway if I want to make the auditions starting this afternoon, but my feet won’t move. Anyway, my back pack’s still in the trailer, and I can’t show up in front of a bunch of famous TV people with hay sticking out of my hair and smelling like a horse. Mrs. MacKenzie puts an arm around my shoulder and steers me toward the truck.
“What say we sit inside for a while?”
Mr. MacKenzie leads Gus away and disappears, then comes back with another fellow and, together, they unload the sulky from the roof of the trailer while his wife tries to start a therapy session with me inside the truck.
She’s saying, “Why don’t you stay around here today, and we’ll give you a ride back home tonight?” I take a look into the back of the crew cab. There’s a blanket on the floor, a needlepoint cushion on the seat that says, “Horse Lovers are Stable People,” and I can’t help but think how good it would feel to stretch out with my head on that pillow and drift off to nowhere.
She says, “My little sister went to high school with your mom. They were in home room together for a couple of years until…”
“Yeah, I know. Till she got pregnant with me,” I say, picking at a chip in the polish on my thumbnail.
“She was nice, you know. Shy. Pretty like you.”
“Yeah,” I say. “That’s what I hear.”
“I’m sure Paige tells you all kinds of stories about how Kevin and I are tough on her—like your mom is on you.”
“Not like my mom.”
Mrs. MacKenzie turns in her seat to face me. “It’s not easy being a parent,” she says. “Especially a single one, like Tina. You know she only wants the best for you.”
“And what do you know?” I say, suddenly and supremely pissed off. “All she ever does is tear me down—Uncle Steve wants me to work for him: A nice job, in a nice place, with nice clothes. But she wants to keep me under her nose. Like she doesn’t trust me not to go out and do the exact same thing she did at my age! I’m not that stupid. I’ve got brains to go with my looks. I can do something with my life. But she keeps trying to stop me!”
“What are you trying to do with your life today?” she asks like some damn school teacher.
“So You Think You Can Dance!” I say, but it’s silly-sounding the way it comes out. “I can dance, you know. I can dance that good.”
Mrs. MacKenzie says nothing.
“Even if you take me home today, my next chance, I’ll be gone so fast you won’t see the flash,” I say.
She just sits there blinking at me, something like Gus.
“Wants the best for me. Yeah right!” I say.
Finally, Mrs. MacKenzie says quietly, “You may not see it now, Angel, but you still need your mom.”
“Oh, come ON!” I say. “Like a flower needs the eff-in’ rain?”
She reaches over to fiddle with an end of my hair. “You need to finish school, Angel. Then try out for the show. Until then, you need someone to support you—keep a roof over your head.”
“Uncle Steve’s offered lots of times to take me off her hands,” I say, meaning I don’t need that battle axe for a minute, but Mrs. MacKenzie twists it.
“Have you ever thought, maybe, your mother needs you?” she says.
“Where do you think Tina Bradshaw would be if she didn’t have you to stay sober for, keep a house for, hold down a job for?”
“Oh, seriously!” I say. Seriously. I hadn’t thought of it like that.
“At least let me call her, let her know you’re OK.”
I find Tina’s number on my cell phone and hand it to her. She climbs out of the truck and turns her back while she makes the call.
“Tina? It’s Clair MacKenzie—A bit of a surprise, yes.” She begins scuffing the grass with her toe. “I’m at Truro Raceway and Angel’s with—Yep. Truro.” I see her nodding and hear her making little starts at speaking, then waiting for Tina to finish whatever tirade she’s on. As Mrs. MacKenzie circles close to the open door, I catch Tina’s high witchy voice saying, “…keep on going!”
Good enough. I jump out of the truck and make for the trailer. I’ll show that bitch! Mrs. MacKenzie’s right behind me, grabbing onto the back of my jacket as I fish around for my pack. “Ti—Tina…you don’t mean that,” she’s saying.
I’m tossing blankets and coolers this way and that, raking for the damn bag.
“Wait!” Paige’s mom says, taking my arm; then into the phone, “Hold on, Tina.” She searches my face with her eyes. “Your mother’s angry, Angel. She doesn’t mean what she’s saying.”
Into the phone, she says, “Take some time to cool off, Tina. We’ll bring Angel home tonight after the races.” A sound from the other end. “Sometime around seven or eight, likely.” Another sound. “Don’t mention it,” says Mrs. MacKenzie, and she hands me the phone.
I say, “She meant it, you know.”
Now Mrs. MacKenzie looks like it’s her who wants to cry. Instead, she reaches up and strokes my hair the way that was so nice before. “Angel, she wants you to come home.”
“She’ll be waiting for you; you’ll see.”
“Like that’s something to look forward to.”
The way Mrs. MacKenzie slumps her shoulders, I almost feel sorry for her. She’s caught in the middle, trying to make peace where there never will be any.
“Look,” she says. “I need to help Kevin hitch Gus for his warm up. Why don’t you climb into the truck and get some rest?”
That little pillow sure looks soft.
“For a bit,” I say. “But I likely won’t be here when you come back.” I’ll be dancing a solo in Halifax.
Paige’s mom makes a sad smile and says, “I hope you will be here, Angel, but that’s up to you.”
“Yeah.” I open the door and crawl in.
Next thing I know, the truck is swaying gently, and Gus is clomping onto the trailer. A few more thumps, rocks and bangs and Mr. MacKenzie’s sliding into the driver’s seat.
“Well, little girl, lucky for you we’re going home with a $3,000 purse, or I’d blame you for putting my horse off his race, and you’d be walking across the Confederation Bridge.”
I’m so fuzzy with sleep all I can get out is some kind of grunt. Slept through my chance at the Big Break. Don’t know whether to be pissed or just smooth my hair and root around in my pack for some lip gloss.
Mrs. MacKenzie climbs in her side and hands me a carton of steaming French fries. While I stuff them in, she says, “I stopped by earlier, but you were dead to the world, so I figured you needed the rest more than the food.” The way she reaches out her hand, I think of Tina always grinning and snatching fries from me when I bring them home. But Clair just pats my knee. “Glad you stayed,” she says and turns to buckle in. “Your mom will be, too.”
So, when they drop me off, Tina’s hunched over the kitchen table with a cigarette burning down to her fingers, head in her hands, faded roots showing about half an inch through the part in her hair. Behind her, Uncle Steve is stretched out on the living room couch, head thrown back, mouth wide open. When Tina hears me come in, she stands, scraping the metal chair legs on the floor. She lifts her shoulders, and it’s as if she’s going to open her arms to me like you see in those pictures of the Madonna. That’s not likely, though, because the table’s in the way. Instead, she crushes her cigarette into the dried ketchup and gravy on the plate in front of her and gives me her usual bitchy stare.
“So ya decided to come back,” she says. Her eyes seem watery and red.
“Not by choice.”
Steve begins to stir.
“I heard what you told Clair,” I say.
We watch Steve sit up, register what’s happening and jump to his feet.
“You’re back!” He’s coming at us like he actually is going to hug me, but Tina steps out from behind the table and stops him.
“Leave this to me, Steven,” she says.
He rears back and gives her a look like he doesn’t understand.
“Get outta my house and let me talk to my daughter,” she says.
Uncle Steve looks from her to me, runs a hand through his hair and stumbles out the back door, leaving the two of us eyeing each other.
I mimic her angry shriek: “Tell her to keep going!”
Tina crosses her arms in front, settles her weight onto one hip, keeps her voice even. “That’s not what I said,” she tells me. “What I said was, I wished you could keep going.”
“Oh. Like there’s a difference,” I say, still dangling my pack from one hand. I could turn around yet and walk out that door.
Tina doesn’t answer. She takes a seat at her end of the table and indicates for me to do the same. I do because even if I decide to leave again, I’ll probably stay long enough to pack a few more things.
With one hand, Tina slips a Du Maurier from its foil nest beside her plate and says, as she puts it to her mouth, “Before your grandmother died, she told me she married your grandfather for two reasons: one, because she was pregnant with your Uncle Steve; two, because she needed to get away from her father.”
She lets that, and the cigarette hang while she flicks the trigger of her lighter. Now I have to watch her suck and draw ‘til her cheeks cave in and the end of that cancer stick is good and red before she turns to me.
“When I was younger than you—fourteen or fifteen—there was this dog,” she says. “Belonged to the old guy down the road.”
She takes a drag, taps the cigarette against her plate.
“Butch,” she says, eyes sliding into a far-away look. “He was black and white with a lucky white tip on his tail.” She’s almost breaking into a smile. “I remember how soft his coat was: wavy, not curly. Shiny and nice.”
She takes another drag and blows the smoke out the side of her mouth.
“In those days, there was always somebody at me: Your grandfather—you can thank God he didn’t live to see you grow—the two boys who got around with your Uncle Steve; and, your good old uncle himself.”
She waits for a reaction to that “Uncle Steve” remark, but I don’t give her one.
“I was like you: better looking than the other girls. Fair game, I guess is how the boys saw me. While we waited for the bus, or when we were walking to or from, they would make grabs at my tits, or my arse or my crotch, like I was some kind of dumb animal they could tease however they wanted.”
Those idiots on the car lot come to mind, but I don’t say a word.
“I didn’t know how to stop them—and Big Brother Steve? He helped them. Like I was this pretty little piece of something he owned, and he was happy for his friends to have a go at it. Sometimes on the walk home, the boys would drag me into one of the fields along the road where we couldn’t be seen and try to get their hands down my pants or up my shirt. They used to have contests to see who’d get my bra off before I could stop them.”
Uncle Steve playing with the back of my bikini.
“Then Butch started meeting Steve and me at the end of the lane in the mornings and following us to the school bus. I used to pet him, and he’d trot along beside me the whole way. After a while, he started showing up when the bus let us off in the afternoon. He’d always come straight to me. I loved that dog,” she says. Her face never goes that soft for me. “He loved me.” That comes out like she’s surprised.
“Eventually,” she says, “Butch got so he’d bark and snarl when the boys tried their stuff, so they took to kicking at him, trying to make him go away. But Butch would stick with me. I can see still see him, white paws bouncing off the dirt, barking, hunching down, growling at those boys…For a while, he kept them away.”
With the cigarette between her yellowed fingers, she rubs the heel of her hand along her forehead and back over her hair. Now she takes another drag and blows the smoke high, toward the ceiling.
“One Saturday, they were all crowded into Steve’s bedroom. The music was loud, but I could hear their voices, low, through the wall. They were planning to fix Butch for good. They meant to catch him one day after the bus let us off. Steve was to grab him from behind; Lloyd was to force a potato sack over his head; Roy was to wrap a piece of bailer twine around his belly and tie the sack up tight. Then, they were going to put him in another sack with stones, tie it up and toss him into the old pond at the back of one of the fields near the bus stop. No one knew how deep that pond was, but we’d heard that whatever went into that black water never came out.”
She pauses here to balance her cigarette on the edge of the plate and rub her palms along the tops of her thighs. She looks to me before she continues.
“That Monday, Butch met Steve and me at the end of the driveway, wagging his tail and looking for pats on the head. But I said Go home, Butch. Of course, he didn’t know what I meant and walked along beside me like always. Steve said nothing, just watched.
“I turned to face the dog, pointed to where he came from and said, Go home, Butch! He sat and cocked his head, like he was asking what I was talking about. So, I found a stick and threw it in his direction. Go home, Butch! I said again, but he ran after the stick, took it in his mouth and brought it back to me. I threw it again—straight at him this time. It caught him in the hip, and he looked at me with hurt feelings, then picked it up again and returned it. Godddamnit, Butch, Go HOME! I roared. By now, Steve was rocking back on his heels laughing.
“I picked up a stone and threw it. Clipped Butch in the head and he whimpered, shied to the side and sat there looking at me. Before he could come toward me again, I shouted as loud as I could: Go home! Go home! I picked up another rock and threw it. Got him in the chest. Finally, Butch went away with his head and tail hanging.
“He turned around to look at me once. I said again, Go-home-you-stupid-goddamn-mutt! and started a run at him, punching the air. All the while, I could hear Steve snickering.”
Tina leans back in her chair, picks up a fresh cigarette and lights it with the burned-down butt of the other. “Hardest thing I ever did,” she says, propping an elbow against herself, with the new cigarette cocked to the side. Maybe her eyes are welling up, or maybe it’s the smoke.
I’m slouched in the chair, arms folded across my chest, well aware of the pack on the floor beside me. I was within reach of my dream in Halifax but Clair MacKenzie convinced me to come back to this hag, where all she’s got for me is some shit about a mutt I never even knew.
“What are you telling me this for?” and I can’t possibly fit into my voice the contempt I feel right now.
Tina brings the trembling cigarette to her lips one more time. I know she can feel me waiting.
Finally, she lifts her watery damn eyes to mine: “Every time I look at you these days, Angel,” she says, “all I see is that Eff-in’ dog.”
Photo: @Julie Anderson All RIGHTS RESERVED