Illustration by Andres Garzon
“I kept thinking how marvelous it would be if I could somehow tear my heart,
which felt so heavy, out of my chest.”
― Anton Chekhov
I knew it. I knew what she was up to the minute I heard she was going to Florida by herself—a piece of trash, I say—one of those women who just can’t stick with it.
It was circa 1967 at our house in Oakville, Ontario, and those were my first thoughts as I sat, telephone in hand, listening to my friend Donna. She was talking about her mother, Mrs. Fritz.
Next door, in the Fritz’s back yard, their fourteen-year-old golden-haired cocker spaniel, Ginger, had prompted Donna’s call. She’d been pacing back and forth on top of a layer of ice and fresh snow for the last two hours, tied to the clothes line, the fur on her toes soaking wet, a high-pitched whine emitting continuously from her lungs.
“I mean, what mother goes off and leaves her children alone for six weeks in the middle of winter?” I thought. “And now, poor Donna has to do all the housework too, on top of her homework, and she’s only just shy of thirteen, not even!”
“Well, I guess she was in love then. That’s what she told me, anyway,” Donna said, wearily.
I, like my mother, was not one to get involved in the messiness of other people’s lives, so I said nothing. But imagine how that must feel—too be responsible for someone else’s death, and he, the father of your own children. It was such a shock—there was no indication at all of heart trouble—or, so they said; what a pity. It’s only nine months since she left, and just three weeks before Christmas too. But I guess there’s no accounting for love then, is there? Still, for Donna and Kevin, it must have been a terrible thing, living in the shadow of another person’s sorrow.
Ginger let out a howl and started to yelp, tugging her leash against her neck. “You’d think someone would take pity on that poor dog,” I thought.
“I can’t stand it any longer. If she hasn’t stopped crying in the next ten minutes, I’m calling the SPCA,” Donna said. “And that’s that.” She pronounced this so loudly it made me jump.
“Oh no, Donna, really? No, don’t do that. You poor thing, you’ve been through enough. She’s just pining. Animals do that, you know; set to wailing. I’ll come over and walk the dog, bring Ginger over here for a bit,” I cooed, trying to smooth things over. “I have a bit of homework left to do, but I’ll be over as soon as I’m done.”
Poor Donna—her brother Kevin up and left her by herself, went off to practice football with his coach. She’d been out running errands again, picking up something for dinner.
“Oh, all right then,” Donna said.
It was Mrs. Fritz who used to walk the dog, to keep her girlish figure, she said. But Mr. Farnsworth, it seems, can’t abide dogs licking at him, he abhors them, and Ginger is just too old to move anyway; so they abandoned her too, on top of everything else.
I went down to the basement, pretending I was going to do my homework, softly closing the door behind me. I sat on the stool next to the record player and put on my album. My first and only album—“The Monkees,” a gift from Donna for my twelfth birthday. I had a poster of them pasted to the wall in my room. I picked up the needle and moved it along to the third song, my favourite, ‘I want to be free, like the bluebirds flying by me.’
Days in our house were usually pretty serene: Not a lot of tension. Not a lot of high drama or emotion either.
This was in direct contrast to how things used to be at Donna’s house. At Donna’s house there used to be life—laughter, music, lights on all the time, the perfect white bedroom set in Donna’s room. And her father, Mr. Fritz, he was the captain of our Saturday night sleep-overs, at the helm in their small, windowless, galley-style kitchen, laughing, smiling. Popcorn made from scratch, rubbing the pot slowly and patiently back and forth over the glowing red element of the stove, salted and poured over with freshly melted butter; we licked our fingers, hand-stirred frozen lemonade, ice cold.
Mr. Fritz was a little portly, with darkish hair, wavy and thick, not handsome in a traditional sort of way, but amiable, a tease, there in his black apron—a gift from Donna last Christmas, ‘The Grillfather’ printed in red letters on the front. He seemed happy in comparison to the composed, reserved countenance of my own father; serious-minded, with a wry, English wit. Things used to seem more fun at Donna’s place.
Mrs. Fritz was the serious-minded one in their house—a school teacher, always dressed tidily in a skirt and stockings, a blouse and sweater; cold as a dead fish. She was slender and would have been pretty—very pretty—if she’d smiled more often. An underlying discontent enveloped her, a judgmental air of Mr. Fritz’s playfulness with his children, and she, the authoritarian, glowered mostly in the background, intervening with directives on teeth-brushing and other disciplinary matters. A swat on Kevin’s bare legs with a belt when he’d delivered some perceived verbal slight on his way out the door to football practice.
Collectively, they were a handsome family, always well-dressed. Kevin, blond, like his mother, and more manly-looking than Mr. Fritz. Donna, tall and slender like Mrs. Fritz, her hair a honeyed blend of her mother and father’s hair colours—boy-crazy.
My family had a sort of blandness about us; faded clothes, loosely worn, handed down from one child to another, the same dark hair; no bright sports uniforms or dressing up for Sunday roast dinner at the dining room table; no formalities to be adhered to; no parental control or expectations hovering over us as we did our homework.
Mr. Fritz was an insurance agent, or he worked for an insurance agency. Anyway, I’m not really sure what he did. His best friend, Mr. Farnsworth, worked there too; they had met there, both just out of university and beginning their careers. And Mr. Farnsworth came to their house often; sometimes stayed for Sunday dinner. I was never asked to stay for Sunday dinner, that was reserved for family, and for Mr. Farnsworth. I was there though, on a few occasions, when Mrs. Fritz would come to life on those Sunday mornings after our sleep-overs, and she would occupy Mr. Fritz’s spot at the helm in the kitchen. It seemed odd: she would move in, after Mr. Fritz had made us breakfast, flipping pancakes on the griddle, our favourite radio station playing with bacon popping in the cast iron frying pan.
We would help Mr. Fritz wash and dry the dishes afterwards, clean up the mess while we danced to the music playing on the radio…‘it’s another Pleasant Valley Sunday, Here in status symbol land, Mothers complain about how hard life is, And the kids just don’t understand’…laughing as we bumped hips in time to the music, Ginger running in circles after us.
“Hurry up Howie,” Mrs. Fritz would command through the doorway, anxious to get started on the roast.
While she waited, she laid the table purposefully as always; first freshly ironing a white lacy table cloth, then flicking it across the table, straightening and tightening it at the corners. Dishes were brought out from the china cabinet; not the round grey tumblers and white melamine Donna and I used from the kitchen—these were crystal glasses and white china plates with a gold rim on the edges; candle light; bottles of good red wine (according to Mr. Fritz, as he dutifully removed them from the sideboard in the dining room).
As the afternoon progressed, so did Mrs. Fritz’s mood; elevated, it seemed, by the anticipation of the Sunday roast; peeling vegetables over the sink, a crisp floral apron tied tidily over her clothes. Once the pork or beef was in the oven surrounded by onions and carrots and quartered potatoes; cooking slowly at 325 degrees, to meld the flavours together, Mrs. Fritz would dress for dinner, which was held early at five o’clock.
She soaked in a hot bath, lingering to massage and relax herself, and to seep the scent of onions from her fingertips, she said. She always wore a dress those Sundays rather than a skirt and blouse; either sleeveless, or with small sleeves just over the shoulders in blue or cream brocade. The length of the dress highlighted her still youthful figure, her hip bones, the curve of her breasts. All accompanied by a string of pearls at her throat and matching earrings –understated sensuality.
Once, I was just leaving as Mr. Farnsworth arrived (looking attractive, suntanned, charming, as always—Donna running to greet him, throwing her arms around his waist), Mrs. Farnsworth having begged off with the flu. The mild flicker of a smile was in the corners of Mrs. Fritz’s mouth as she removed one place setting from the table, her look willing me out the door. “Time to go home,” it said, “little pitchers have big ears.” I was self-conscious, in my Saturday faded navy cotton pants and runners.
“Bye Donna, bye Mr. Fritz!” It never seemed necessary to address Mrs. Fritz, for it seemed as though she were only half there.
For years afterwards, I would carry that image of a woman who would leave her husband for another man; for her husband’s best friend. A woman who from then on seemed in a distinctly different category than all the other mothers I had known—a woman with an aura of scandal, a defiance of conformity, a possible hint of instability and yet, an underlying air of excitement too. I didn’t yet see the danger of such women.
“It must have been dreadful for the poor man, coming home, in the middle of the afternoon like that,” I said to Donna, later.
Mrs. Fritz had called in sick to the school where she worked the next day, and they brought in a supply teacher. Mr. Fritz came home on his lunch hour to check up on her, to make sure she was all right, to make her a bowl of chicken noodle soup.
Afterwards the light and noise and music seemed to disappear from Donna’s house. It all disintegrated so quietly: Mrs. Fritz leaving, packing only a few suitcases. The lacy cloth still hung on the dining room table from yesterday’s Sunday dinner on that rainy and dreary Monday afternoon. Was Mr. Fritz suspicious of Mr. Farnsworth’s absence from the office? Or was he really intent on retrieving some aspirin from the medicine cabinet, as he had said, nursing a splitting headache from the two bottles of wine the three had shared at last night’s Sunday dinner—where Mrs. Fritz had slipped off her patent leather high heeled shoes, stretched out and crossed her nylon-stockinged legs underneath the table and rubbing her feet together, slid one foot up Mr. Farnsworth’s pant leg, caressing his shins. Mr. Farnsworth had over-stayed his welcome and the placid Mr. Fritz had left the table and gone to bed early, leaving them there to clean up the residual mess.
Mr. Farnsworth left his home quietly too, Donna said, although, to me, this did not seem nearly as tragic. I had never even seen Mrs. Farnsworth.
There were no more Saturday sleep-overs; no more popcorn or frozen lemonade in round grey tumblers; no more watching movies or the vampires in Dark Shadowson television in Donna’s private, white, perfect bedroom; no Sunday pancakes and bacon, no dancing in the kitchen.
Afterwards, each night after work and on most week-ends, Mr. Fritz would lie down and never get back up again. He took to his bed in the bedroom he’d shared with Mrs. Fritz, with the dark wooden furniture, where he had found her with Mr. Farnsworth. He was always there whenever Donna and I went to her house after school. Donna was often frightened then, fretting constantly and didn’t want to go through her front door alone, so I always went in with her.
When we came around the corner from the living room and past the bedroom door, Mr. Fritz would be there, with all of the lights out, lying still in the darkness on his back with his hands folded on his rotund belly. Over the weeks we watched his hands lower as his stomach slowly receded.
“My Dad is doing pretty good,” Donna whispered, “but he is very lonely.”
He functioned well enough to go to work each day—Mr. Farnsworth had whisked off to Elliot Lake with Mrs. Fritz for a job as a used car salesman. Mr. Fritz summoned the energy to soldier on, working seven to three so he would be there when Donna and Kevin got home from school; standing in front of the stove in a sort of stupor, skimming off greying foam from a pot of over-boiled potatoes, a withered-looking wooden spoon poking through the surface. I couldn’t bear to meet his eyes. He did not appear to find solace in his children, as one might expect, for he and Mrs. Fritz having never seemed that close. I suppose it had all hummed along somehow, like it was supposed to; that last Sunday dinner, to me, seemed picture perfect.
The day before it happened there had been a storm with freezing rain that coated everything with a good, thick sheet of ice. All the hydro lines on our street were broken. Trees cracked and their limbs fell across the road and blocked traffic. We’d been off school and without electricity for thirteen and a half hours. The power finally came back on at 9:45 p.m. The next day, it was a Tuesday, the fourth of December, and we went back to school. Mr. Fritz wasn’t feeling well and after he dropped us off at the front door, he said he was going back home to bed. He was still lying there when Donna and I walked into the house after school.
That lace tablecloth was still there, getting dusty by then and greying. The lights in the house were out, and nothing seemed unusual except for the cold air blowing in through Mr. Fritz’s open window. Donna and I made our way to the bedroom door and stood for a few moments. Far away I thought I heard a window close.
“Dad?” Donna said, as she crept to the foot of his bed. We heard a wheeze and a groan and looked closely at the top of the mattress. Ginger was lying at the foot of the bed, alert, protecting Mr. Fritz, and we realized the sounds were coming from her. But Donna already knew that her father was dead, and she screamed and searched him for movement where there was none.
For years, I didn’t remember Donna’s screams or her anguish. I remembered I stepped out into the hallway, as though I were waiting for something too. But I knew that it was over, like a crime that could not be undone. And I thought then, and now know this to be true: that nothing, nothing in the name of love should ever feel that bad.
In my mind’s eye I can still see Mr. Fritz there, lying on his bed, frozen in time with his face swollen with bitterness; and yet, a look of magnanimity graces his countenance too. His heart had given out on him, Donna was later told. But when she’d known back then, that he was gone, she’d continued to scream. Holding her arms around her waist, she stayed there rocking, bobbing up and down. And then she finally slunk to the floor into the fetal position; she lifted her hands to her face and began to sob, and she screamed and screamed until no more sound came out.
LORRAINE KIIDUMAE is a graduate of the Simon Fraser University Writer’s Studio, fiction cohort, and the Humber School for Writers. Her work has appeared in Emerge, RCLAS Wordplay at Work, the anthology Emails From India, Bandit Fiction(UK), the Nashwaak Review, and the Scarlet Leaf Review. She has forthcoming publications in The Maple Tree Literary Supplement and The Path (USA).
Copyright © 2019 by Lorraine Kiidumae. All rights reserved.