Roxanne nudged open the sliding door with her elbow, the screen a bloated stomach, ash-specked and patched with fire tape. A fresh tear ran perpendicular to the door handle. One of the boys. She sighed.
She stepped onto the A-frame’s second-story deck overlooking the backyard, Dale’s workshop, the clothesline, and the limp cord of chili pepper novelty lights he’d strung last summer. The lights drooped so low now that she had the option of ducking underneath or climbing over them. She always ducked.
She drew in a breath, the air a confusion of high altitude and midsummer heat. The beach towels, three of them, primary-colored and screen-printed with superheroes she couldn’t name or differentiate from one another, had been baking in the sun for a week. Iron Man, Green Man, Charred Man. Dead Man. Or was it two weeks? She’d bring them in tomorrow when the boys came back from their grandparents’.
Across the valley sloped an arboreal graveyard, the landscape mostly scorched but dotted with old logging camps and gravel pits and the powder blue Crow Valley Correctional Centre. If not for the high fence and seventies-era watchtower, it could pass for a school. The melted remains of a gas station sign towered like the spokes of a carnival ride.
Roxanne shuddered, glancing at her watch. The prison. Five o’clock. Dinnertime for Cell Block B. She stepped back inside the house, thrusting the screen door closed behind her, and passed through the master bedroom. A fastball trophy teetered on the dresser.
There you are. She gazed from the loft into the kitchen at the thermos on the island. I’ve been trying to tell you something. She hurried downstairs, fondling the warped box of orange Tic Tacs in her pocket, flicking the plastic tab with her thumbnail, and snapping it shut. Open, close, open. Close.
One more chance. That’s what the mayor said to me. Can you believe that? She clutched Dale’s thermos to her chest, the cup’s camouflage design worn by fingertips. His, hers.
One chance, as if the last twenty-five years have counted for nothing. You know how many times I fixed the copier without having to call the rep? And you know how big a deal that is because he only comes to town once a month, if that. Roxanne paused to put in an earring.
Or what about the fact that I managed to save the files from the top drawer during the fire? Huh? Would’ve liked to see the town get through year end without those. She traced her left brow, the midpoint singed and scarred, giving her the appearance of a nineties rapper. And speaking of twenty-five years, that asshole never even acknowledged my silver anniversary! No plaque, no “Thank you for your service, Roxanne.” No card, no cake, no “Take the afternoon off”!
Roxanne aligned herself with the brass mirror where Dale’s quilted plaid jacket, key fob, and Corrections ID hung. What do you think of these pants? They’re getting a bit tight. She blamed her excess weight on a pair of geriatric pregnancies. She’d had her boys late in life. They’d come out too big, already the size of hobbits, demanding Nerf guns and waffles and the Wi-Fi password. She smoothed a spot on her thigh. The pants were filing cabinet beige with serious pleats.
And of course, the mayor’s going to be there tonight. You know his wife is going to sing the same stupid country song she sang last year, “Old Flame.” Who the heck sings Alabama anymore? It was written in the bloody eighties. She’s what, like twenty-three? Is she crooning about the boy who dumped her during recess in grade two? Honest to God. You’d think she’d be singing Taylor Swift or something.
Roxanne applied lipstick. Do I look okay? She stared at her reflection. She hadn’t dyed her hair since the fire, and it hung below her shoulders, tinder-dry and tarnished. A Halloween wig. I do, don’t I?
She stuffed her cheat sheet and the Karaoke Judge’s Handbook into her purse and smiled. Judges get free meals tonight, she said, sticking the thermos under her arm. I’m starting with the poutine.
She grabbed her keys, but paused at the door. It was going to be a long night. She should feed Dale’s goldfish. She dumped her stuff on the counter and pattered to the living room, where the fish tank was balanced on a rickety card table. The goldfish, once common and orange, was now abnormal and black. Ammonia, the vet had blamed for the fish’s darkening fins, but Roxanne believed the color change was an act of love, not chemistry. A friend shaving his head or growing a mustache to support another man’s malignant balls.
She gently tapped the glass. The fish was only a couple years old. Roxanne had given it to Dale in the spring before his death. That winter had been particularly harsh. There were polar vortices and budget cuts at the prison. A leak in the basement, low-grade tendonitis in his pitching arm, a stubborn bout of shingles. The fish was meant to give him some renewed sense of purpose. A project to snap him out of his post-winter blues. For the most part, it worked. Dale was meticulous in its caregiving. He kept the tank clean, indulged it with ornamental ruins, polished stones, and plants. A tiny decorative skull. Sometimes he would talk to the fish, sometimes he would serenade it, sometimes he would spend hours just watching it swim back and forth, the water thick as aspic, dim, silent.
Roxanne dumped a few flakes of food into the tank. She’d get the boys to help her clean it tomorrow. She gathered her belongings, kicked a football away from the door, and stepped outside. The July heat arrested the back of her neck. Her heel caught a rotting deck board. Fuck’s sake, Dale. I told you to fix that months ago. She set the thermos on the barbecue and used both hands to pry her heel free. Blood rushed to her head.
Okay. Calm. She exhaled, jamming her foot inside her scuffed shoe, edging cautiously down the back stairs toward her truck. One more chance. He can’t judge me outside of work hours, can he? Roxanne clambered into her blue Silverado. The Tic Tac container dug into her thigh. She wrestled it from her pocket and tossed it onto the dash. From under the JEPSON FAMILY sign, she pulled out of the driveway onto Crow Mountain Road.
Roxanne had never judged a karaoke competition before, but she’d learned a lot sifting through Dale’s old feedback forms. Pitch, tone, balance, staying on beat. The usual musical stuff, but song choice was important. Stage presence, performance. There was even a line for “costume.” When Dale made it to Nationals last year, Roxanne had bought him a pair of blue coveralls and a headlamp to look like a miner. He’d worn his steel-toed uniform boots. She’d even loaned him some eye shadow—coal dust gray.
He’d been disappointed with his fifth-place finish, blaming his “poor enunciation” on his headlamp being too tight, even though his placing was the highest ever by a Crow Valley resident.
Roxanne’s ears popped as she descended the mountain, eventually reaching the stop sign that marked her entry into Crow Valley proper, WHERE YOU BELONG. Gary rolled by in his Royal Canadian Mounted Police cruiser, leisurely like he was still in Newfoundland on his way to a whale-watching excursion, followed by the mayor in his Prius. Ugh. She snarled and inched forward as traffic continued at a pace she couldn’t intercept. I bet you he’s going early to get his damn picture taken with the judge from Vancouver, she said, shaking her head. Cars whizzed by. Roxanne laid on the horn. Don’t cry, she told herself. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. She stared hard into the rearview mirror. You got this, she declared with the conviction of a Facebook meme.
But Roxanne didn’t got this. She reached below her seat and pulled a paper bag from her stash, this one from A&W. She breathed in and out through clenched teeth. In. Out. She tasted ketchup, smoke, panic. Running at full speed, getting clotheslined by caution tape and expressions of sympathy, eyes and hands gesturing for her to turn back, look away. She had not.
An opening. The truck lurched forward. Roxanne stuffed the bag between her legs and turned toward the Crow Valley Town Hall, with its two-tiered roof and blistered siding.
Where there should’ve been a sign on the town notice board cautioning the residents of Crow Valley that a bear was in the area, there was nothing. Roxanne had forgotten to post the warning after the conservation officer faxed it late yesterday afternoon. She searched the back seat. Maybe one of the boys had left a drawing of a bear on the floor. All they seemed to do at school was eat snacks and color pictures of animals and maps of Canada and happy-faced pizzas sliced into fractions. Nothing. She found a blue pen and drew a bear on the back of her daycare bill. She wrote WARNING in block letters, got out of the car, and used a rusty staple to pin the sign to the board. The bear looked like Grimace from McDonald’s.
She lingered then, her eyes flitting from notice to notice, from Dale to Dale. He was in the truck next to Brett in the recruitment poster for the local volunteer Fire and Rescue. He was mid-pitch on the mound in the flyer advertising the town’s upcoming fastball tournament, the Crow Valley Classic. She recognized the tip of his work boot, scuffed and peeling, at the edge of a newspaper clipping celebrating Crow Valley Correctional’s contest-winning Canada Day parade float. He was the notice board itself, having assembled the frame with his own tools and a pint of green paint.
Roxanne wiped a tear from her eye and got back in the truck. No seat belt. She crossed the road and pulled into her parking spot at the front of the hall, tires bumping the curb.
She slid out, taking her work sweater with her, though it was heavy as an afghan. The hall’s front doors were plastered with more posters than the notice board. Summer camps and missing cats and housekeeping services. One of the Mains brothers was selling a dishwasher, and in the middle, the poster for the CROW VALLEY KARAOKE CHAMPIONSHIPS, IN MEMORIAM.
She touched the image. Traced a line from his chestnut hair, down his throwing arm to the finger from which the headlamp dangled. He’d been right about the light. It was too tight. Roxanne had noticed weeks after the competition when she’d tried it on and it fit her much smaller head perfectly. She hadn’t taken it off since.
She reached up, switched the lamp on, and charged through the door.
A flyer advertising a daycare was posted on Crow Valley Correctional’s staff room notice board. Val removed one of the sign’s pushpins. Forty, she muttered, transferring the pin to a hedgerow of tacks lining the board’s perimeter. Sweet mother of Captain Morgan, is that all it’s been? She crossed her arms, blew a kink of hair from her face.
Next to the flyer was Dale Jepson’s funeral bulletin. Val snapped a picture of the babysitting sign and placed a hand on Dale’s photo. God, it still seemed like yesterday even though it had been almost a year. A year since his staff locker had been painted red and retired, a year since the Crow Valley Heat had won a fastball game, nearly two years since Benedetto was paroled and shot his parents with a sawed-off shotgun, nineteen and a half since Dale and Brett joined Search and Rescue and got lost during a training exercise. Brett. What was he doing? She texted him.
Where r u?
Getting ready. Should I wear the white shirt you like or my hunting jacket?
Who r u with?
He didn’t reply. She slid her phone back inside her wool uniform pants and sliced a bagel. Heat flared from the toaster element, warming her cheeks, curling her hair, whispering falsehoods and what-ifs and doubt. She reached for the bulletin board and counted the tacks from one and then scrambled to remove her phone.
Now what r u doing?
Brett had sent photos. One of him in the white shirt, one in his hunting jacket. The other of him packaged into Dale’s baseball jersey, the bottom buttons stretched brazenly like a corset. She enlarged the picture. He’d taken it beside the fridge. Daphne’s horse painting curled from the freezer top. An upside-down Frozen magnet secured the girls’ recent swim report cards and her fall AA meeting schedule. She stared at Elsa’s witchy fingers and black eyes. Let it go. What a bozo. Someone hadn’t put the broom away.
No way, she texted. Too much. U look like Molly Chivers.
What’s that supposed to mean?
Tryin’ too hard.
The toaster popped.
“Sonofabitch.” She blew at her fingertips. “Why do bagels get so goddamned hot?” She searched the staff fridge, pushing aside a fieldberry yogurt marked BLANCHARD for the cream cheese she’d brought in on Monday. Not there.
Val texted, What r u doing now?
She peeled the foil from a pat of butter someone had lifted from the prison cafeteria.
Changing my shirt, Brett replied.
Why did he think she liked the white shirt? She didn’t remember telling him so. She’d never jerked off the buttons, never untucked it from his faithful jeans, ducked inside and made love to his chest. Val spread the butter with a plastic knife. No, Brett liked the shirt. It must make him feel good. Probably makes him feel like Dale.
“Valerie Farquhar.” The prison chaplain sat at the table, folding his hands on his lap. Memories of a cleft palate were sewn into his smile. “You singing tonight?”
Val sat across from him, straddling the chair. “Can’t find my cream cheese.”
“I heard first place was ten grand.” His eyes sparkled disco.
“And, a trip to Nationals,” Val added, spewing crumbs across the veneer table.
“I thought you had to go to Vancouver to qualify. Or Edmonton. Isn’t that what Dale did?”
“Yeah, but Crow Valley’s a qualifier this year.”
Val sipped from a bottle of water. “Because Dale placed top five last year.”
“Right on. Wish I could compete. Of all the gifts God gave me, singing isn’t one of them.” He pulled a wad of knitting from a canvas backpack. “How about Brett?”
“Oh, you know Brett. He’s got this whole thing planned. For Dale.”
“No doubt.” The chaplain loosened his collar. “What’s he singing?”
“Dunno. He’s kept it a secret. Been practicing for weeks down at the old recording studio, serenading the one-way glass in his logging earmuffs.” Val frowned. Had he been? Really? Yes, he had. She’d seen him through the window, choking the music stand, sucking in his gut, kicking at the sheet music when he messed up.
“Of course.” The chaplain leaned in, face contemplative, gentle. The kind of look a parent gave before asking a child if anyone had touched their privates at summer camp. “And how are you doing, Val?”
“Forty days,” she said, hands twitching. She set down her bagel.
“An important number in the Bible.” He sat back, crossing his knitting needles. “You know the number forty is mentioned a hundred and forty-six times? Often symbolizes a period of great testing, a trial. Probation.”
“Yes,” Val managed. Trials she understood. Probation is exactly what she felt she was on. Permanent probation.
“Forty is the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai, the number of days and nights it rained while our good friend Noah was on his little sailing trip. But did you also know that Elijah went forty days without food or drink?”
“Fought a lot of false idols, that one, but he also did some incredible things, like bring fire from the sky and perform miracles, including”—the chaplain paused, placed a hand on her shoulder—“resurrection.” He gave her a little pat. “I think you’re going to be okay.”
Val hadn’t thought of her sobriety in biblical terms. “Thanks.”
The chaplain pushed away from the table and stood. “Will I see you at the hall?”
“Eventually.” Val eyed the staff room clock. “I’m not off ’til eight.”
Copyright © 2023 by Alexandra Bryan