In Summer Tense
BY Maria Smythe
Illustration by Carolina Smith
Here, then, come the Petrowskis covered in bites: the mother, the father, Effie and the boy. Their cottage sits a short distance from the shore of Lac Croche. Mrs. P. looks up “croche” in Harrap’s Concise French- English Dictionary.
“It says, ‘Mus: quaver, or NAm: eighth note.’ So is it Lake to the Eighth Note in music? Or is that just in North America?”
To which Mr. P. replies, “I could give a flying rat’s ass what it means.”
“This place will give the children some history,” Mrs. P. says. “
So they’d better appreciate it. Goddammit.”
This summer the Petrowskis hire a new nanny to look after the kids. Her name is Mrs. Chidders. She doesn’t tell them her first name. She hides an undiagnosed skin condition under a caftan and prefers to sit alone in her room with her portable television turned on. The cabin is not equipped with cable. She spends a few minutes this morning flipping between channels. The children sit outside her door listening to the hum, pretending they are privy to rerun episodes of The Outer Limits.
“She’s better than the last one they hired,” Effie says.
“Yeah,” says the boy. “And she likes electronics.”
Blueberry bushes to the left and the right, each squat and teeming with fruit. On the cottage verandah, three concrete steps up, the boy sat cupping the twitching body of a bullfrog in the palm of his baseball glove. In his other hand he held a pair of pinking shears. Snip snip. He slashed the webbing between the frog’s toes. Pain from a blow to its head with a bolo bat had rendered the frog sleepy-eyed, like it had swallowed a pondful of sloe gin and was living to regret it. Effie rattled the screen door directly behind.
“What’cha doin’?” she said.
“I’m a scientist,” the boy replied. “What do you think I’m doing?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said as she pushed the door open with her backside. She carried two glasses of pink lemonade on a metal tray stamped with the fading photo transfer of a Santa who stood, in victory pose, holding a bottle of Coke.
“Ew,” she said, eyeing the frog. “Where’d you get that?”
This scene plays like a rendition of a soap opera clip gone Sesame Street. The girl should be either punching the boy or pouring the lemonade over his head, urging him to let the poor frog go.
The boy repeatedly catches flies and tears their wings off. He skins a chipmunk on the second day of their vacation. The girl thinks out loud, “Some vacation this is.” The boy thinks he would like to join the army someday. Mrs. Chidders sits in her room hoping the cable will somehow miraculously hook up.
Mrs. Chidders sends Mrs. P. a memento from her babysitting days. A picture of herself with Effie and the boy. Mrs. P., whose address is now the Seniors Lodge at Hanson, remembers the camera and tripod she used to own but doesn’t recognize the woman in the picture with her children. She cries for three days, wondering if she is going mad.
THE DEEP PAST
Mr. and Mrs. Petrowski sit at a lunch counter discussing their future together. They plan to buy a bungalow and plant a garden in the first year. They might have four children. Then again, they might stop at two.
THE PAST (WITH A LITTLE LEEWAY)
“Be quiet,” said the boy.
“Oh, I’m always quiet,” Effie said. “That’s me. Miss Quiet. You’d think we were in the middle of Mummy’s living room. Not a peep. That’s me.”
Mentally absent but physically present, she willed herself to the city, to the Petrowski family’s second-storey flat. She saw herself perched in the middle of Mrs. P.’s French provincial sofa, spooked by the ornately framed museum reproduction of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy hanging on the opposite wall. A pair of unshaven men had delivered the sofa to the flat a couple of years ago, and never once did Mrs. P. consider removing the plastic sheath coating the brocade seat and backrest. Effie didn’t know this yet, but the boy in the picture looked a lot like Mrs. Chidders—except for the gilt frame and silly costume and good posture. He had her eyes.
Staring at the frog, Effie realizes she lacks the courage to tear the plastic sheeting from the French provincial furniture. She swears she would give up her Barbie’s hot-pink convertible just to see her mother’s face twist in agony as Effie (in her mind) spills grape juice all over the emerald brocade. Effie doesn’t know who painted Blue Boy. She tells the boy how she doesn’t appreciate Mrs. Chidders’ stories about women burning their bras. Mrs. Chidders never runs out of stories. Mrs. Chidders doesn’t wear a bra either. The boy notices these things.
DEEP PAST WITH FAST FORWARD
Mrs. Chidders looked into a shop window and saw herself as a very old woman. She hadn’t travelled far, except to school and back, but because she had spent an hour at Blythe & Bernier’s funeral parlour when her grandmother died, she mistook the suitcases in the display for caskets, one of which was just the right width and length for someone her size. So, whenever she saw a rectangular box, Mrs. Chidders (who even then refused to tell anyone her first name) died.
The boy thought Mrs. Chidders told the best stories just before bedtime. He liked the one about the man who cruised Lac Croche to kidnap children to sell into white slavery. Mrs. Chidders said the man grew a monkey’s face during the day and that his pockets bulged from the gadgets he needed to finish his capers: Swiss Army knives, peanut-covered chocolate bars, mosquito netting and an oxygen tank with mouthpieces. The monkey-man drove his motorboat, pulling the children behind, their bodies sliding up against one another in knotted dry-cleaning bags, breathing recycled air through mouthpieces attached to a common tank.
The only drawback to this story, thought the boy, was that after hearing it Effie refused to go down to the beach. She had recurring nightmares that the man was hiding in the blueberry bushes beside the lake. He wore a Davy Crockett hat made of skunk fur and whistled “Que Sera Sera” as he trampled the berries to smithereens. Instead of feet, he sported flippers, and something in the frog’s expression that morning, smiling yet not smiling, prompted Effie to say, “I know why you’re keeping it.”
She waited as the boy cut another piece of string and tied it around the frog’s hind legs before handing him his lemonade.
“You’re going to feed it to the monkey-man,” she said. “
Maybe I will and maybe I won’t.”
“Drink up,” she said. “Mrs. Chidders is sleeping. We’re lucky she likes Martini & Rossi. I told her it was cola. Wow, she drinks fast.”
“Nice work,” the boy said.
“We have to pick two-ooo buckets of blueberries or she’ll lock us in the house.”
“I wish,” said the boy.
Mrs. Chidders fills the Martini & Rossi bottle with cola the night before. She converts the television into a nightstand. She pretends not to hear when Effie asks, “What’s it like to have a baby?” At least the boy has his hobbies, she thinks.
Mrs. Chidders, supine on the Petrowskis’ cane-back couch, drifted in and out of a reverie where a group of handsome young men in the south of France painted her toenails chokecherry red.
She had left the windows of the cabin closed that morning, preferring to inhale the sweet sawdust smell emanating from the knotty pine panelling. She was thankful Mr. P. had never gotten around to varnishing the walls that year. A stockpot filled with blueberries sat on the stove with the ring turned to medium low. Magazines piled in neat stacks stood sentinel beside the picnic table in the cabin’s dining area. Mrs. Chidders was seldom caught without a copy of either Reader’s Digest or The National Enquirer under her arm. She read to the children whenever she thought they were misbehaving: MEN MEET AFTER MUTUAL HEAD TRANSPLANT or WOMAN EATS THREE THOUSAND EGGS IN ONE HOUR.
When she wasn’t recounting her spine-chilling tales, Mrs. Chidders spoke in small chirps, as in: “Bring me a drink, sweetie?” to Effie, or “What’s with these bugs in here?” to the boy, who answered, “I dunno.”
Mrs. Chidders overhears Effie coaxing the boy into curling her hair.
“Ringlets in the middle of summer look ridiculous,” she says. “You should wear a bathing suit. It’s boiling outside.”
Mrs. Chidders shook the blueberries from a soupspoon after giving the pot a superficial stir.
She called the children into the house, but there was no reply.
She called a second time, and the boy entered without looking her in the eyes. He ran to the washroom, eager to wash the frog smell from his hands. Effie entered the cottage carrying the tray in one hand and the glasses in the other.
“Good day for a swim,” Mrs. Chidders said. “After your naps.”
The glasses clinked together as Effie dropped them into the kitchen sink. The boy lingered in the bathroom playing with the taps, mesmerized by the hot-water faucet dispensing its usual cold stream. The cold-water tap never completely shut off. That night, he held his breath as he lay in bed. He could hear the water droplets hitting the sink one by one. This sound from the delinquent tap made him think of his father, but he didn’t understand why.
“My mother says that eating too many berries will make me allergic,” Effie says.
“Nonsense,” Mrs. Chidders says. “Why, if I had these many blueberries when I was a kid, I’d have jumped at the chance just to pick them.”
“Not me,” says the boy.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” says Mrs. Chidders.
The boy licks his fingers. Effie wipes her mouth with the corner of her paper napkin. The shelf in the kitchen cupboard holds three tablecloths, but Mrs. Chidders insists on using the one with the strawberry motif every time they sit down to eat.
While her brother played with the water taps, Effie ducked into the bedroom and pulled out a yellow cotton dress from the closet she shared with the boy. She stepped into the dress, pulling the straps over her shoulders. She rolled up her socks and danced her feet into a pair of patent leather shoes.
Mrs. Chidders stood at the head of the picnic table pressing a slice of orange cheese between two slices of bread inside a tabletop grill.
“If I didn’t know better I’d say you were having your portrait painted today,” she said. “But I don’t know why you went to all that trouble. You’ll only have to change.”
PREFACE TO THE PRESENT
After a brief interview, but mostly on the advice of a trusted friend, Mrs. P. hires Mrs. Chidders.
“Just out of curiosity, Mrs. Petrowski, what is it that you do?”
“Oh, a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”
“Hmmmm,” Mrs. Chidders says, folding her arms across her chest. “And Mr. Petrowski?”
“Berries are good for you,” Mrs. Chidders tells Effie. “They give you a rosy complexion.”
“I don’t want Rosie’s complexion.”
“You don’t even know a Rosie,” says the boy.
“Stop playing with your food, both of you.”
Mrs. Petrowski spent most of her summer days cleaning houses in Westmount. On Saturdays, whenever called upon, she worked as a caterer’s assistant chopping vegetables, arranging cold-cut trays and serving bite-sized pizzas at large weddings. Mr. P. worked as a delivery man for the Honey Dew Restaurant. He occasionally moonlighted as a security guard and told the boy that a bank robber almost shot him once.
The boy will grow up never having read more than 12 books, the most memorable being The Happy Hooker, which his mother hid under the mattress in the master bedroom. He will convince himself that the world does not understand him. He will marry a woman who leaves him for his boss, which he believes gives him carte blanche to tell everyone the intimate details of their now-defunct sex life. He will wear green turtlenecks in the winter.
Effie will consider entering a convent but will end up working as a receptionist in a tire shop. She will marry a man who reads newspapers at the dinner table and who will remind her, “Look ahead.”