This story originally appeared in Prairie Fire Magazine after it was a finalist in the 2010 McNally Robinson Creative Nonfiction contest.
Joe came into my life in an unceremonious way. I was seven. My brother was with our father and I’d spent the night at the sitter’s, because my father no longer took me. Friday night was my mother’s night off. I’d go to the sitter’s and she’d dress in the one half-nice outfit she owned and take the city bus down to the Buffalo Hotel with her friend who lived in the apartment below us.
Saturday mornings, I took a sadistic pleasure in waking her from groggy, hung-over-sleep. I’d get up early, walk across the parking lot to our apartment complex and let myself in with the key I kept on a white shoelace around my neck. But, that morning when I burst through the door to exact my punishment on her for not spending the night with me, it was different. A stranger’s oily head was laying on my pale pink pillow case.
The sun shone through the bed-sheet-curtain onto his terracotta, pock-marked skin, his eyes shielded from it by shaggy black bangs. The room reeked of man smell, booze and stale cigarette smoke. I took a step back; as if a wider angle would help me to better understand the picture.
My mother, becoming aware of my presence, opened her eyes. She sat up, reached for her cigarettes and presented me with a defiant look of teenage rebellion. She was twenty-seven. Her lips parted in a smug, disobedient smile, as if to say, “So you caught me. What’re you going to do about it?” No apology. No explanation. She lit a cigarette, a new habit for her, puffed out a breath of smoke and told me that Joe would be living with us from now on. I would have to share a room with my little brother.
I shrugged my shoulders like I didn’t care— caring was letting her win. I went back outside and hopped on my green, banana seat bike and rode circles around the park, until I was called for lunch. I expected a cold bologna sandwich, but when I stepped into the apartment, I found Joe at the stove frying potatoes and onions, like he owned my mother’s kitchen. The thought of eating his cooking made me ill.
He set a greasy plate in front of me and I looked from it to him. I didn’t want either. He smiled shyly, without saying a word. My mother pleaded with embarrassment, but I left my food untouched and went back out to ride my bicycle.
A light prairie rain fell on my back as I peddled. It didn’t matter. I kept riding; until I saw him come out the front door. I stopped my bike and watched him from across the street. He walked with his head down, tucked into the collar of his lumberjack coat, staring at his toes. My father never walked with his head down. When he disappeared around the corner, I rode back to the building, locked my bike to the stair rail and ran up to our apartment. He was gone!
My mother was sleeping on the couch and I wondered what she had been thinking, as I stared at the Smurfs on the TV and crammed handfuls of dry Fruit Loops into my mouth.
My independence was short lived, however. Joe let himself into our apartment without even knocking. He had a box of Black Label beer slung over his shoulder, and he looked at me guiltily from under those shaggy bangs. He kicked off his cheap Velcro SAAN store shoes and he looked for a moment like maybe he got it and felt bad for invading my home, but it didn’t make him leave. He walked past me and set the case of beer beside the kitchen table. My father would have at least put the bottles in the fridge.
I see it all from the outside now— a family portrait, I sitting on the floor in front of the TV with my Fruit Loops, my mother snoring on the couch in the foreground, and Joe cracking a beer in the background. I call it: Initiation of the Child of an Alcoholic
My brother stared at me with confusion and accusation. We had a sort of sibling telepathy and I could read his expression. He was asking who this man was and how could I have let this happen. There was nothing I could do. I didn’t like it anymore than he did. But, I felt guilty for not being able to make it all better.
Joe worked the rigs, which meant that he didn’t work much, except in the winter. He spent his summers drinking beer and collecting U.I. So, my mother decided that he could be our new sitter. I liked our old one better. He fed us healthy, rich people food and read books to us. I doubted if Joe knew how to read. At the old sitter’s we had lunch at the same time every day, and were only allowed one hour of television. Joe fed us whenever and didn’t care what we watched on TV, but he was strict, really strict. We hated the chores he gave us and how he made us sit up straight, and if we chewed with our mouths open, even if we had a cold, he would take his saliva-coated, food-slimed fork from his beer-and-onion-breath mouth and rap our fingers with it. In fact, rapping our knuckles was his favourite form of punishment. He didn’t yell like our mother. He didn’t give warnings. His face would just turn mean and tangled and he’d lash our knuckles with whatever was handy. Sometimes, he would even smack me across the face.
Things weren’t all bad, though. He usually cooked us breakfast, which was less lonely than pouring our own bowls of cereal before heading to the sitter’s. It was always fried potatoes, or bannock. If my childhood mornings had a taste, they would taste like Joe’s bannock, smothered with butter and saskatoon jelly.
He took us places, too. He loved the outdoors like no one from the city I’d ever met. I thought he might be like me, but not for too long, because it weirded me out. I thought about it just long enough to wonder if the traffic also kept him awake at night, and if he missed the country like I did. I hated our musty apartment.
When Joe wanted to go, all he’d say was, “Come on.” It was a lot of words for him. When we got our marching orders, we’d pull on our shoes and wait for him to find his fishing rod. Then, we’d walk. We’d walk and walk. We’d walk, until we were too winded to protest. We’d walk, until we were too tired to even think a complaint. We’d walk, until our little brains transcended the pain of our blistered feet and we’d follow him into a place of release, where the confusion of the world was forgotten along with our discomfort and exhaustion.
The river wasn’t just for fishing. Joe was a stone skipper too— the best I ever saw. He’d wind back his arm and send a rock jumping like popcorn toward the far bank. Ours usually died with an instant balloup. My brother took on learning Joe’s skill like an apprentice studying a master. I gave up, preferring to scratch non-permanent words in the sand with a stick— sads and lonelies I could stomp out with my foot.
When I look back at him there on the shore, I don’t see him as the cliché— the Hollywood Indian, organically silent and quiet. Instead, I see the opposite. This picture is called: Man with the Indian Beat Out of Him.
Winter came and Joe left for the rigs. We went back to the sitter’s. Then, one day he appeared at our stove frying steaks and drinking Crown Royal. When Joe drank beer, he sat at the table and was quiet. When he drank Crown he moved around a lot and got loud. I didn’t like him like that, but I did like the purple draw string sacks with the Crown logo on them. He gave them to me to put my Barbie things in. I also liked that we left the apartment for a fourplex on the other side of the park. We were moving up in the world, though children still came by door-to-door on Wednesdays selling meat from their freezers so their moms could go to bingo and everyone’s parents got drunk and made a lot of noise at night.
We lived the high life when Joe first came home. He gave us money every day to buy slushies and rent movies at the store. He even bought us new skates. But, within a couple of weeks the money was gone. Joe packed to go back to the rigs, and my mother made an appointment at the food bank. It was feast or famine from the time he walked into our lives—steak and Crown, and powdered milk and canned vegetables.
Spring came and my mother bought an old canvas tent from the used sporting goods store with her tax return. Joe was back and we all went camping as a family. He whittled us whistles from green twigs and taught us to cook bannock on a stick like a hot dog. We’d fill the centre holes with jam, and let it squish out all over us. It was better than marshmallows. We were finally a Rockwell portrait: Happy Family Camping.
In the winter, he went back to the rigs and we started the cycle again. It was like the same movie playing over and over, until one fall when we came home from school to find Joe gone. Our mother explained that he was in trouble and it would be cleared up soon. It wasn’t. He went to jail— convicted without evidence, as my mother always reminded us. He’d been in trouble once before when he had too much Crown and threw a chair through the picture window. The police had come and hauled him away, as he pounded his Velcro shoes against the back door of the cop car. It was a drunk-tank crime, not the sort of thing you go away for. We couldn’t see him doing anything you go away for.
Prison didn’t terrify Joe like it did me. He met us with a smile, at ease, as if Bowden wasn’t a scary place where people in uniforms searched you for drugs and locked you behind row after row of concentric, barred gates. I wished my father would get rid of his girlfriend so I could visit him on weekends, instead.
I asked my mother why she stayed with Joe. She told me she didn’t want to be lonely and that she had a right to be happy. We were all miserable. She cried every night.
The worst Christmas I ever had was the one when Santa gave me someone else’s Barbies. I could tell, because they had chopped off hair and wore outfits crocheted by my mother. It was also our first Christmas without my father.
The second worst Christmas was the one we had at Bowden. Instead of drinking hot chocolate and eating gingerbread cookies, we hopped in the back of my mother’s Nova and drove down to see Joe. In the movies kids always sit around a tree getting puppies and doll carriages. We spent Christmas morning being searched. The guards even cut a small hole in the back of the teddy my father gave me, to search for contraband. It was the first gift my father had given me in three years. Later, I didn’t care. I found a receipt for it in my mother’s things.
I hadn’t expected anything from Joe. It wasn’t like he could shop in prison. Besides, I didn’t even like him. Why would he give me anything? I was shocked and even a little embarrassed when he shyly handed me a brown paper package. I suspected it really came from my mother, but it didn’t. It really was from him. Inside was a beaded necklace and earrings like I’d seen women wear to powwows and rodeos. The beads were ice-blue and orange and strung together by his own hands into spider webs that hung in Vs. I didn’t want to give in, but they were stunning and I put them on immediately. I even thought for a split second about giving him a hug, but I didn’t.
Joe held my mother’s hand, while we children played Twister and shuffle board, all of us trying to make the best of it. The adults pretended it was Christmas, but we knew better. No artist would paint: Children Playing Twister in Jail, on Christmas.
When Joe was up for parole, we cleaned the house spotless. A lady in a grey suit came by to inspect our place, peering under beds and in closets. Joe was denied parole, because of the collection of empties we had gathered for refund at the depot. The lady thought they belonged to my mother and said it was an environment non-conducive to rehabilitation.
At the end of his sentence, Joe was released to the Salvation Army rehab program, right next to the Friendship Centre— that’s how he described where it was to my mother. I knew it, because my father painted the sign on the western wear store next door, back when I was still his daughter. I felt like his sign could see us. I hung my head and hurried in the door.
Joe was high on sobriety when we found him reading the bible in the visiting room. His sobriety was intoxicating and soon the rest of us were hooked, too. If my father painted our portrait it would’ve been entitled: Model Family of a Recovering Alcoholic.
We started going to church regularly. Church wasn’t entirely new to our lives. Joe had reached out before, dragging us to beautiful old monuments, strict and full of ceremony. We were always met with the same look of suppressed horror and castigation my grade two teacher gave me when she found me playing barefoot on the playground, my ill-fitting shoes cast off. She called me a dirty, little heathen under her breath as she walked away, but I heard her.
The church people liked to sit us in the front row of pews like an exhibit: White Trash Woman with Heathen Kids and Savage. An usher would persistently hold a basket out, trying to convince us that God needed our bus change more than we did, while the congregation felt all warm inside for opening their doors to sinners. We learned a lot about sin in those churches— mostly that poverty was a sin. We walked home a lot, too.
I usually wore a dress from a thrift shop. My favourite was a calico blouse and button down skirt with a fake petticoat sewn behind it. It was something Shania Twain would’ve worn in the early days. My mother preferred slouch boots and bright corals. My brother, when he was with us for Sundays, dressed in western shirts and Wranglers bought by our dad. But, Joe owned only t-shirts, jeans and SAAN Velcro shoes.
As soon as the sermon would begin, quiet Joe would start slowly ripping those Velcro tabs. He’d rip them up and stick them down. Rip them up and stick them back down. I was ashamed of him. I’d sink low in the pew and pray to be made invisible.
Joe would laugh mischievously to himself, before performing his final stunt. He’d close his eyes and fade off into a loud guttural sleep. Those old churches were designed to carry noise and his snores were no exception. We’d wake him as soon as the service was over and make a getaway as quickly as possible, never to return.
I never found God in those places, but I think Joe found exactly what he was looking for.
Joe gave up working on the rigs. It wasn’t an environment conducive to sobriety, or steak and bottles of Crown Royal and trips to the store for slushies. He took a job at a plant nursery. It was the perfect job for a man who loved nature and disliked talking. He stayed on there for a long time. Once, he brought me home a flowering cactus. I promised to never let it die, but it did.
On one of Joe’s days off, he asked my mother if he could borrow her car to visit a friend who lived in a town near our father’s farm. He’d been on the wagon for close to a year and none of us were worried. In the days before sobriety, it would be a certain runaway, but he was different now. He was born again and Jesus had made him a new man.
His boss called on the third day to say he was fired. He came back on the fourth. We had just moved to a new town outside of the city and my mother missed her exams at the college. He didn’t apologize. Instead, he threw rhetoric in her face about how she was as fat as a cow and couldn’t keep house worth a squat. It wasn’t his words. It was my father’s. My mother refused to take Joe back.
She drove us to the beach for ice-cream, to make it easier on us. At first, I felt like celebrating. The sick feeling didn’t hit me, until my brother found our father’s cowboy hat in the back seat of the car. I dropped my vanilla cone out the window into the dirt and called it: Sabotage.
There is a man who hangs out by the Liquor Store. His hair is to his shoulders, he’s dirty and walks with a limp, and sometimes I can swear he’s Joe.
In my dreams he recognizes me. I take him in the store and buy him a bottle of Crown Royal, instead of that cheap Royal White wine he drinks from a green jug. We go to Wal-Mart, because we have no SAAN anymore, and I buy us both a pair of cheap Velcro shoes. It’s Sunday and we decide to go to my sister-in-law’s church, the one my husband’s ex also attends. We sit in the front pew, aimed and ready to rip, as soon as the minister opens his mouth. When everyone looks on us with pity and condemnation we just laugh, numb with Crown we share straight from the bottle. No one raps our knuckles.
After, we go to the river. Joe teaches me how to skip stones like a pro and we eat bannock with saskatoon jelly. I draw our portrait in the sand: Father with Daughter. He tells me he loves me. I hug him and tell him, “I’m sorry.”