“Tracy, can you pass the creamer?”
My hand was already reaching for the tiny pitcher of whiteness when Vicky glanced sharply at Arnie. “An-Nee,” she whispered. “An-Nee. ‘Nee,’ you know, like a knee joint, we talked about this.”
Arnie, her husband, was leading the Bible study, having written a book on Daniel. It had never made much of a sales dent on Amazon, but he enjoyed speaking engagements whenever someone provided the opportunity. The couples were switching houses and turn to host. Our house was being painted and the painters were in and out, the fumes triggering my migraines. Vicky’s china was some of the finest I’d ever seen and it was simple enough to focus my gaze on the gardenias enrobing a saucer.
“Ah, sorry, An-Nee,” Arnie muttered, taking the pitcher from me. “You’ll have to excuse me.”
I smiled to the degree that I knew the dimple in my left cheek would appear.
Getting it wrong. I used to go to studies and be the only single woman. Sometimes the only woman of colour. And now, ever since Marty, I was the one with the name wrong.
Marty’s mother had been in the United Church when he was in Scouts. A boy would receive points for Scouts every time he went to service. Enough points and a boy got a badge. Enough badges and a boy’s sash and popularity filled up. Boys still liked things to do with points. Marty held onto his Canadian Tire money and he was a member of most loyalty clubs in our town. His wallet bulged with the cards.
The snow had started falling at seven after the forecast lay all afternoon, so the other couples, all retirees, were all nervously glancing at their watches as he spoke. Some of them didn’t have snow tires. It was Marty’s turn in the circle to give his testimony. He didn’t speak slowly, but my tea had turned lukewarm.
Our study in Daniel would take us through the new year. Before the testimony, the other couples had been discussing whether it would be prudent to take a break in the study for Christmas. One was against; the others for. Of those against it, they argued among themselves which games they should play for a social and who should lead it. Vicky and Arnie wouldn’t play whist. Eleanor and Rudy wanted to go out to dinner. I said I didn’t very much like cards myself. Cards and mah-jongg had been my unbelieving parents’ favourite pastimes before we were saved at the old Chinese Alliance Church in Victoria.
I was happy to have them argue. I had been delaying giving my testimony. Marty eventually took the conventional arc of shedding worldly things and coming to the Lord. The point was, he said, he didn’t actually have to shed the points. You didn’t have to get rid of everything in this world to be saved, but you had to change your heart posture. Points accumulated. Jesus saved. He went to service at our church in Chilliwack now because he wanted to. He also married me because he wanted to. He had told me that the Lord had whispered to him that if he wanted it, I could be the one. I used to think that was less romantic than if the Lord had told him to but had since altered my position on the matter. The Lord spoke so rarely. I was the one because Marty had wanted me to be the one, even after his first wife died. I never thought I would marry a man who had been married before to someone else, but there you go. Anyway, better a dead ex-wife than a vindictive ex-wife, right?
Sheng nu, is what they call old unmarrieds like me, before Marty, in China. Leftover women. Unwanteds. But there were always other ways. Mother had told me she always had a suspicion, after I turned thirty and the dating pool essentially shrunk to the postman and the trash collector, and everyone at the Victoria church taken too, that I could marry someone who had been divorced. The friends had all needed to know, of course, whether Marty’s had been a Biblical divorce, that is, on Biblical grounds. It had. She had. Been unfaithful, I mean. Tracy had been baptized and dedicated to the Lutheran church as a child. Arnie explained that Marty had tried to missionary date. The Bible says you should only take hands and run with those going in the same direction. Arnie said you can be going even in the same direction and it’s an unequal yoke if one of the oxen is trampling the field, trying to score meth.
Last year, when the news came that she really had passed away from an OD of fentanyl, Marty said, “The kids will be devastated. They loved her, even when she didn’t care.”
Shirley, the one who had become a lawyer, managed the estate. Tracy had not left much. She had pawned the ring Marty had given her for drugs.
After Marty’s testimony, they argued about who would give the testimony next week. We still had three who hadn’t given them, so I was safe. They wanted to hear about Sarai. I wanted to hear about what kind of parents named their child Sarai, the name of Abraham’s wife pre-covenant, versus Sarah, her new name, given to her by God.
Sarai said she was happy to give her testimony, but it was a boring one. Her husband begged to differ.
“You had a crush on my friend when I came to call,” Luca pointed out.
“And you liked my sister!”
“Wrong sister,” Luca said, kissing her on the forehead. “But didn’t take us long to undo the pretzel. God ensured I found my way—eventually.”
In Vicky and Arnie’s kitchen, I rinsed my teacup out, wanting to try a different flavour, the Bengal Spice. The rest of them always drank coffee and Vicky was always up and down like a maniac to ensure they didn’t run out, even though I was pretty sure nobody much cared.
I wasn’t sleepy. Marty hadn’t been sleeping well though, not for months. It was all regarding that terrible boy. But what could we do?
Vicky seemed to know, even though she and Arnie were married when she was but sixteen and he twenty. She was behind me rearranging the cakes in formation again like cascading dominoes. I talked to her sometimes about it; even though she was white and did all the white people’s things in our town, she was my best girlfriend. The first year of marriage is important, I had told her, whether you’re twenty or whether you’re sixty. Marty and I met online, which Arnie thinks is ridiculous because only kids do that. But I wanted to be married and we were and whether it’s your second or third marriage, I believed in the special care taken in the first year, and Vicky had agreed.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
I thumbed my phone in my pocket. “For what?” I don’t know why I am this way, except that I like to have others say what I won’t.
“She was hateful. I never liked her,” Vicky said.
I laughed. “And what does it matter?”
“I thought it would make you feel better.”
“Did she believe?” I pointed to the ceiling.
Vicky tapped on the faucet. She turned around and faced me. “She once laughed at the book of Daniel,” she said. “She could eat everything set out, then take the keys, say she’d forgotten something at home. I thought she at least believed in being with us. Maybe that’s where the boy gets it from.”
The boy, the subject of our recent prayers. When Marty had to go to the Island to care for his grandchild, a horrid thing—but the child of one of the wayward sons, Felix, I had gone mad and scrolled through my phone until I’d called everyone and said my piece.
What a heart on my Marty. Felix, too, had a heart, but it was too soft. Felix wouldn’t discipline that child. He, as the youngest, had adored his mother, and she him. But I didn’t believe you could let a seven-year-old boy act like that. One time, the boy looked me straight in the eye, picked up my Waipo’s figurine, one of the last things I had from her, and held it over the stone floor of the kitchen for five heartbreaking seconds. He smiled as it shattered. I remembered how blue his eyes were, with flecks of yellow. How innocent.
I talked about that in church marriage counselling. But Marty said these things had to be done. Nobody else could go to the Island. He never forgot those dates, the calendar marked so clearly with sticky stars and circles. And as much as I would like it, I wouldn’t let him forget them either.
Arnie liked to do the study in a sort of radio play style. He asked who would like to be King Nebuchadnezzar and who would like to be Daniel and who would like to be the unfortunate wise men who could not interpret the king’s dream. He was always the narrator in a deep stomping boom.
“I’ll be Daniel,” my husband said.
Marty loved this part the best. He got to do his voices. He said if he hadn’t become an engineer he would have been a puppet master or done voices on a children’s television program. I knew he would be Nebuchadnezzar because the king got to change and repent the most and Marty got to act all tough and evil.
I enjoyed his performance. He went from great strong proud Nebuchadnezzar ordering the deaths of all the wise men, to a nearly fetal position at Daniel’s prophecy. The Babylonians were done for. They would be done for in the end times too. It was there, set out in the book. The king was turned into an animal-like creature, some said a cow or an ox, and Marty gave a moo, which produced tons of laughs.
So I was mid-chuckle when I heard him stop and rise from the chair.
“Tracy,” Marty said. He was patting his shirt and the thighs of his trousers. “Tracy, help.”
He looked at his empty cup and kept on patting himself all over. Had he forgotten something? It wasn’t time to go yet. There was an order to things. We always did closing prayers, praying for our friends, the church, the town, and our world. For the prophet, Jeremiah had said, “In its welfare, you will find your welfare.”
“Tracy, I’ve forgotten the keys to the car. Left them in.”
The last time the doctor had administered the Montreal Cognitive Assessment to my husband, back around Halloween, when he’d turned sixty, Marty had drawn the clock a little funny with some of the numbers bunched up on one half, but his score was 25 and that wasn’t a worry. Mild cognitive impairment. His cube drawing was always excellent too, something from being an engineer. I had thought nothing of it. He was so terrible at Pictionary that people joked if were we even married. Never mind that I drew well, from pictures in my mind, with a steady hand.
“Tracy, can you go get them?” He was looking at me.
My tongue had stuck to my cheek. If even Marty had been looking at a window, a curtain, a lamp, into a spectre’s cornering eye, it would be another matter. But he looked directly at me like the boy had.
I didn’t know what to do, so I smiled.
I guess you never forget the feeling of all eyes on you in a room. Sarai quickly went back to her knitting. Vicky rubbed her hands over each other and kind of flickered her gaze between Arnie and me. Luca had left his seat for sweets. The grandfather clock in the corner ticked in the background. We always aimed to finish the study before 9:30, we old-timers needed to go to bed.
“Tracy,” Marty said again. “My keys.”
Suppose you are a woman. Suppose you are a wife. Suppose you’re smiling like an idiot and you can feel your cheeks with their skin just a little more yellow than the others, shiny and stretched like saran wrap.
I supposed I got up. I supposed I walked. I supposed I stuffed my feet into rainboots. Somehow a coat was put on.
The snow had buried some of the Christmas decorations the neighbours had put up and had caused others to twinkle more brightly from the reflections.
I regretted stuffing my feet into those rainboots now as the wind blew harder, making a row of fake icicles over the garage across the way bang and rattle. Sarai and Luca had driven their white SUV and it looked so much like Marty’s Subaru that I kept pulling at the wrong door handle with my bare hands.
When I finally found the right car, the keys were in the ignition as Marty had said. Teeth hardened against my lips, I climbed into the driver’s side and slammed the door so briskly half the snow from the window fell off. Then I sat in the car.
The windshield was completely covered and it was dark in the vehicle except for the light from the bit of the side where the snow had fallen. The brush was in the back, I knew it was.
My phone was ringing. Marty was calling. He texted, “Did you find it?”
Shadows moved behind the curtains to the living room and I supposed the group, all the little couples in a magic carousel ride, must be getting more cookies and cake and refilling on their coffee.
I paused to check the gas.
I reached out with my foot to one pedal, then the other.
As I drove away, I was holding the phone in my other hand, the texts still backlit. I promised myself I would stop at the end of the street to finish brushing the snow off all the windows. But for that first five hundred meters it just wouldn’t matter.
I don’t think I ever heard the door open behind me if it did. I doubt it. But if they had, if the others would have stepped out, accompanying the trapezoid of light from the house, bewildered, holding their decafs and their cookies in Vicky’s fine china, what would they have said?
I hit something at the end. It wasn’t even at the gate. I got out and looked and it was just a rubber snowman, its carrot nose askew. I screwed the nose back on, and in my slippers, righted the bulging figure.
I texted Marty back, “Gone mad.” And I could see my slipper tracks in the snow and the tire marks.
I saw three grey dots, indicating he was typing back. And then it stopped. And then it started again. Stop. Start. And I waited, my eyes shut, the imprint of the dots white behind my eyelids, a badly-sewn badge in my brain.
Elizabeth Han is a Newfoundland-raised, British Columbia-based physician and writer. She is a graduate of the Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) program at the University of Toronto and practices family medicine in Chilliwack, BC. Her short fiction has appeared in The Windsor Review and Ricepaper. Connect with her at elizabethhan.com and on Twitter @effyhan.
Katya Roxas is a Communications and Design Strategist at the University of British Columbia. Katya has experience with branding, content creation and social media and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Multimedia Arts, specializing in graphic design and illustration, and a Diploma in Digital Marketing and Communications. Born and raised in the Philippines, Katya is well-versed with the sacrifices and opportunities that come with being an immigrant. Through her experiences, she strives to break the barriers of cultural misrepresentation by creating honest and inclusive visual expressions.