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Excerpt from A Whole Brass Band

Life assumed a kind of irregular schedule inside which each of them had their individual routines. Jean went out with the Old Woman depending on tide and Fisheries regulations, but made no attempt to go very far or stay out very long. She was not so much fishing as she was practising and honing skills she had thought she would never again need. Before she went gallivanting off on two- or three-day heavy duty expeditions, she wanted to know what every creak meant, what every shift in pitch and tone of the engine meant, whether the Old Woman was sneezing or getting ready to blow her top. Jean still felt a hollow ball in the deep pit of her stomach when she loosened the lines and got ready to take the Old Woman out, and until that cold emptiness went away and stayed away, there was no way she was getting adventuresome.

Eve putzed at home, playing Suzie Homemaker with a dedication that amazed everyone. Wasn't she the one who had turned her back on brownies and pecan pie, wasn't she the one had told the washing and ironing to go to hell and taken a hike as far from all that as she could? And yet there she was, with the CBC radio tuned in and turned up, and if she wasn't washing and waxing she was ironing and folding. "My grandchildren," she said fiercely, "are not going to have to take goddamn Twinkles in their lunch pails! They'll take good made-from-scratch or I'll know the reason why."

If Patsy launched herself into computers the way she launched herself into being apprentice Suzie she had a fine, stable career ahead of her. There she was, still talking italics, busy mixing, stirring and checking the oven temperature as if she weren't the one had loudly and often argued, fought and even cursed the idea of having to take home-ec in grade ten. "It's not the same," she insisted, "at school they only taught dumb stuff. I mean, really, how often do you need to make one cupcake? I mean ... one?"

Sally and Mark dutifully did school. They left in the morning with and his siblings, walked to the corner and waited for the school bus. Jean didn't know they waited in a group visibly distanced from the others waiting for the same bus, nor did she know that once on the bus they sat together, ignoring and ignored by the rest of the kids, and if she had known she wouldn't have had any suggestions for bridging the gap. It was more than the new kid syndrome, it was even more than the fact Joe's family were what the rest called Veets. They could have forgiven the Veets part, what they couldn't forgive was that the new kids obviously preferred the company of the Veets.

And then the kids came home with torn clothes, and Sally had a shiner that started at her eyebrow and went down past her cheekbone. She also had a grin that was maybe a bit tight at the corners, but totally sincere.

"My God!" Eve shrieked. "My God what happened?"

"I was talkin' when I shoulda been listenin'." Sally tried to pass it all off as nothing at all but Eve was in high gear, getting ice cubes, getting tincture of benzoin, getting ready to take hysterics.

"Yeah." Mark took Sally's hand, squeezed it gently, his smile stretching his swollen lower lip. "And you should see the other guy, eh Sal?"

"What other guy? What happened?" Jean decided Eve doing the fussbudget hysteric was enough for any household. She sat down and pretended to be calm.

"Oh, you tell 'em," Sally winced, blinking rapidly, fighting the need to cry as Eve's first aid skills blundered away at the eye.

"Well, we're waltin' for the bus at school, to come home, eh, and they start in on Joe, eh." Mark was obviously going to make it all as unimportant as possible. "So first it's the townies, but then the bus kids pick up on it. You know, Buddha-eyed bastard and goddamn boat person and that shit. So then the bus comes, eh, and we get on, and it just gets worse. The joke shit, ch. How can you tell how many Veets live in a house? Count the windows and multiply by thirty; Stuff like that. So we get off at the regular stop and don't they all get off, and so it's either let them pound on Joe and stand around as much use as a cuppa warm piss, or try to make 'em stop. So, they go for us, too. And I'm gettin' my clock cleaned real good and then whappo! and it's Old Sal, here, right in there like a dirty shirt, only this guy grabs her from behind, by the arms, eh, and this other guy gives her that shiner and Joe went nuts."

"So did you." Sally took the tea towel with the ice cubes wrapped in it away from Eve and held it against her own eye in self-defence. Eve was so fraught she was practically ramming it through Sally's skull.

"Yeah. And so I get the guy who's holding her and Joe gets the guy hit her and then Sal. . . " He shook his head, grinning widely. "Listen, don't you ever get noisy again about how we turn our brains to train oil watching Rambo movies because Rambo has nothing on Salbo, here. Yah-hoo! Dumbshit Mikey Tyson has nothing on Sally. Except the lisp."

Sally came off her chair, clowning, foolish, pretending to go for Mark who pretended to cower back in abject terror and the two of' them cavorted around defusing the anger, insult and belated fear of the others.

And then Mr. Nguyen arrived. And the guy who hardly ever said anything to anybody had his jaw in gear. The man who made everyone feel as if his opinion of them couldn't be much lower was carrying a small black lacquer bowl with two brilliant gold fish painted on the sides. He didn't even knock at the door, he just came in. Into the kitchen, right into the middle of the foolishness of the release of nerves and adrenalin. The kids froze, half expecting him to ream them out the way he had probably already reamed out Joe and the younger kids.

"Thank you," he said quietly. He very formally handed the bowl to Sally, looked at her eye and winced, then turned to Jean. "Cold tea," he said gravely. "You make tea. You drink tea. You settle nerves. Put cold tea bag on eye," and then he grinned, too. "My so" says they kicked ass." He turned to Mark. "That true? You kick ass?"

"Yes, sir, Mr. Nguyen. And we'll do it again tomorrow if we have to."

"Damn kids," he decided. "Drive me crazy one day." He smiled and nodded all round, bobbed his head a few times, and then was gone. As he closed the door they heard him chuckling happily to himself.

"Boy," Mark said, "he's an odd bird. I thought he'd raise holy old hell about fighting."

"Probably would have done if you'd lost," Eve said softly. "It's hard to argue with the winners."

Popular mythology says it only takes one good fight to settle things own and after that everyone moves rapidly into friendship. It didn't a pen that way. It didn't happen the least little bit that way. There ere no fights on the way to school, bruises and swollen lips are too hard to explain when you walk into class. But the bus stop and the short trip from there to the front door became a war zone.
Everyone else had routines, more or less, to hold the edges of their lives together. The school bus arrived at a particular time, and returned at another particular time, Patsy's several rides to and from college were geared and timed to other people's shedules but became her routine. Eve was so into Dora Domesticus she was washing on Monday, ironing on Tuesday, brownies on Wednesday, oven cleaning on Thursday, floors on Friday, and only Jean drifted around loosely, depending on tide, weather, Fisheries regulations, dawn, sunset and how strongly the winds were blowing and from what direction.

She came in because the wind was blowing too strongly from the wrong direction and threatening to get stronger. She didn't mind, though, the tanks weren't full but they were so far from empty she felt cheered. The packer was waiting in the cab of his truck when she arrived. He waved and stubbed out his home-rollie cigarette, then got out and moved to help with the ropes.

It only took fifteen minutes. They lowered the fibreglass tub, dipnetted the cod from the live tank into the waiting water-filled container and when the live tanks were empty, Jean turned off her pumps and watched while the packer went back to his truck and winched his tub to the weigh scale. They both grinned; even when he subtracted the weight of the tub and water from the poundage indicated on the dial there was money, good money, being made.

He winched the tub into place, tied it down, signed the chit and handed it to Jean who tucked it very carefully into her wallet. The truck drove off. Jean walked over to the packers, presented her chit and waited while the bookkeeper made out a cheque.

She was in a good mood as she walked home. She had fewer worries right now than she'd had in four or five years. She was tired, sure, but tired can be overcome. A hot bath, a meal, a few hours sawing logs and tired is gone. Terry Dugan would be lead-footing it to the house soon to collect Patsy and head off, probably up a back road to neck until the cab of the pickup was steamed; maybe, after a nap she'd suggest the rest of them go into town for a pizza and maybe catch a movie. The movie. The only one in town. The only one for sixty miles.

She topped the hill and started down the other side, heading for the corner and the road home. That's when she walked into the brawl.

Joe was rolling in the mud, fighting desperately, Mark was pinned against a tree catching punches groggily and Sally was flailing and kicking while two bozos big enough to be on a chain gang laughed and slapped her repeatedly. Joe's siblings were racing down the road toward home yelling for their mother to come and help.

Some things you do before you even think about how to do them. Jean hadn't been in a fight for probably twenty-five or thirty years. She neither knew nor cared who was right and who was wrong.

One of the several taking turns turning Mark's face to mush had his back fully turned to her. Jean ran as quickly as she could and two and a half feet from the broad Jean-clad backside she fired a kick that connected squarely between the muscled thighs. Someone's pride and joy gasped and dropped to his knees. So she kicked him again, this time on the side of the neck.

There was a stick lying in the gravel on the side of the road. It wasn't a club, it wasn't even a baseball bat, it wasn't much of a stick, really, but when it landed on the head of one of the jerks giving Sally a hard time it did exactly what Jean wanted it to do. Suddenly the fight was withering on the vine. One of the valiant turned threateningly and Sally screamed, "You just dare touch my mother you fuckfaced asshole, you just dare!"

The word mother hit harder than any kick, harder than any stick, harder than the club Jean wished she had. They just froze. The, expressions on their faces changed. They stared.

"Come on," Jean puffed and panted, her heart thudding in her ears, "let's go home before the cops arrive."

The word cops finished what the word mother had started. Within seconds gladiators were drifting away wordlessly. Jean grabbed the groinkicked pride and joy by the shoulder, and helped him to his feet. "Do anything like this again," she said quietly, "and you arc going to be one very sorry little boy. Do you understand?" He nodded, too sick to be angry. "Seven against three," she rubbed his nose in it, "and one of them a girl. What would your mother say if she knew?"

Sally didn't cry until they got into the house, and then she just sat a chair, put her head on the table and let'er rip. Jean was so upset she wanted to sit with her and join in but all she could do was take off her work jacket, sit on the bottom step, take off her boots and put them on the newspaper on the hall floor, then pad upstairs in wool
socks to change her work clothes for clean ones.

When she came down Mark was washed and changed. Without the blood from his nose smeared all over his face he looked not too bad. Sally didn't have any marks on her, she had been pushed and shoved more than punched or hit.

"Looks as if Joe got the worst of it." Jean forced some calm into her voice but it still shook and quavered.

"You should call the cops," Eve's voice trembled. "This is starting to go too far."

"No," Mark said quickly, "no cops."

"Christ." Jean sat in a chair, and Eve put a cup of tea in front of her. "They all think they're John Bloody Wayne or someone."

"Joan Wayne." Mark pointed at Sally and tried to grin. Sally didn't answer, she just got up from the table, sniffing, and moved to the stairs. Jean left her tea untouched and followed.

Sally was at the bathroom basin, sponging water onto her face, still hiccoughing and sniffing. She turned and Jean folded her into a tight hug. "Oh, baby," she mourned, "Oh baby, I was so scared for you.

"I was scared for you," Sally walled. "What if they'd hit you, too?"

"When are they going to leave Joe alone? Poor little guy."

"It wasn't Joe this time." Sally looked as if she wished she'd kept her mouth shut but you can't let a cat half out of a bag, it's either firmly hidden or racing around yowling in the face of the entire world. "Oh, Momma," and she was sobbing.

It took ten minutes to get the story from her. Maybe the fights had started because of Joe, maybe Joe had only ever been the excuse. "They said Gran was a ... a. . ."

"Bunkhouse Bertha," Jean guessed. "Loggers' whore."

"You knew?"

"No. But it's what they said to me when I was younger than you are. And I wasn't a very good fighter. It wasn't so much I was afraid of getting hurt, it was that I was sick at the thought of hurting Someone else! So instead of fighting with my fists, I fought with my tongue.


"Yeah. You just tell 'em Oh yeah? Well at least my Gran doesn't give it away for free like some cheap shits I could name but won't. I think I won when I told 'em all that the only reason they were raisin' hell about my mom was they knew their own fathers were at the front of the line, waiting in the rain for the one chance of their lives."

Sally stared. Then she nodded. No grins, no giggles, no hugs, no kisses, just a nod and total understanding.

They both heard the quiet gasp at the doorway. They both turned, startled. Eve stood, her face pale, her eyes suddenly sunk deep in her head, her lipsticked mouth half open with shock and pain. She tried to speak and couldn't, just shook her head, unable even to weep, and Jean knew every party Eve had ever attended, every fling Eve had ever flung, every don't-give-a-rat's-ass laugh Eve had ever uttered had come due, the bill was staring her in the face, the piper wanted paid. But she had no time, no energy, no interest in Eve, her problems, or her obvious pain and regret. Sally was sobbing heartbrokenly, and Sally was who was important. The sins of the mothers ought not be visited upon the children, even to the second and third generation. But they are. What's sauce for the goose is excused for the gander, the sins of the temptress outweigh those of the tempted. The double standard is alive and well and the innocent catch the shit.

She took one step forward, put her arms around her devastated child and held tightly. "I love you, baby," she said. "And that might not be much, it might never be enough, but it's just about everything I have. I'd give my right arm for you to never be hurt again, and we both know I can't stop the hurts. But we can stop this one. Fuck it. I'll sell the house, sell the boat, if I have to I'll sell my gumboots, but we'll get you away from all this generational bullshit."