from “Missing Persons” (a work-in-progress)
Alberta kept to her journal and let everything else slide. She wrote out her hurts and her hates, and she hid them between the mattress and box spring, away from prying eyes.
After her father died, her mother finally had to learn how to drive, otherwise they were trapped where they were, the three of them in their big empty house. Cabin fever, or stir-crazy. Anything with a higher temperature, deepening to boil. They couldn’t keep depending on neighbours to take Emma in to town for groceries and other errands, or the first few weeks of prepared meals after the funeral, nearly a dozen women in the area, every night, taking turns.
It was Mrs. Friesen, Brian’s mother, who had offered to teach her, afternoons Alberta and Paul watched their mother drive circles around the yard; Mrs. Friesen the passenger, calm. Their mother a wreck.
Emma wound so tight she was kinetic; a spring. A spring that only explodes out before coiling up again, slowly squeezing the air out before another release. Alberta and her brother learned to walk on glass; whether cracked or shattered depended completely on their mother.
Alberta tried to persuade her mother that she should be learning too, but Emma wouldn’t hear it. You’re too young, she said. Paul simply wanted to go along for the ride, pounding gleeful palms on the window or backseat as they drove in circles. As they drove in eventual squares, turning corner on dusty corner around quarters in two mile stretches.
Needless to say, whenever Mrs. Friesen came over for Emma to learn to drive what was once their father’s car, the children were relegated into the house. At least until the engine stopped, and the two women came in for tea.
In the end, Emma drove herself a month before her license took effect. Everyone in town knew. If you were to ask anyone about it, no one would admit to knowing anything, but would have called it special circumstances. You don’t expect three people to stay out in the middle of nowhere without a car, do you? Even less if they have one. Emma something stronger when no one else was looking.
For Emma, beginning to drive herself on roads she thought memorized, lost her way as quickly as she found it again, more than a few times. Roads she thought she knew but less than she remembered. It was like re-learning a language after a stroke, with the frustration of taking longer to get anywhere moving slowly to the joy of discovery, of parts of the land around that she previously hadn’t known.
Once she was a bit more comfortable, she took to driving on Sunday afternoons, by herself or with Paul, in a different direction from the house simply to see where she might end up. She used a series of highway around and the valley below as her boundaries; when she came to one, however she got there, she would return home the way that she knew, back along a more familiar series of turns and straight lines.
For Alberta, it felt nearly impossible to get lost on a grid. There was time, and then there was only time, turning left or right or heading straight through.
It seems too obvious to mention that Alberta dreamed of escape, but to where. If there was as much sky as what was under it, her choices would be infinite. Even the direction itself didn’t matter, whether the rise from the west, or sloping down to the east. Each side held its appeal. Or to float down the hidden river that sat miles beneath her.
After her father’s death, shopping with her mother became more tense. Alberta, Emma and Paul, walked through a strip mall an hours drive from the house. Emma, tired but driven. Up at dawn rolling dough for bread, leaving it rise under damp cheesecloth at home. What they would tiptoe around. Dozens of loaves. For a bakery in town. If Emma saw her, or her brother, they would be forced to join in. Alberta working soft brown with her hands. Pounding with whole wheat flour that padded soft sounds on the floor as it dropped, in small handfuls. That made footprints from the dog, or white puff on his dark nose.
In the discount clothing store, Alberta caught a slap from Emma’s hand, on the back of her shoulder. She was humming too loudly again, nearly singing out loud. A habit she got into from spending so much time alone, or with Paul. Releasing the music in her head. The soundtrack to every piece of her, everything that she does. She said nothing, but glared at her mother. She said not a word for the rest of their excursion. She said nothing else for the rest of the day. Her green eyes shot daggers; her green eyes shot knives. Their mother didn’t notice, but Paul did.
Out of water, Alberta felt the full weight of gravity. Her body became stone, her feet turned to lead weights. She felt the air push against her face as she struggled to walk, wondered how it felt to be truly weightless, a creature of air.
To Alberta, there was no such thing as normal. The things that they used to do, ordinary activities were suddenly more difficult, with even the simplest act wrought with new tensions – shopping, going to school, dinner. Every act took on a new and tainted air. At school, no longer just the quiet girl, but the girl with the dead father. Alberta had never lost anyone before, but to Emma, it was far more. As though even their reactions to each other suddenly changed. Who they were, and what they were doing.
Alberta didn’t know if she’s the water or the fuel to her mother’s fire, but knew she was something liquid. Something pure. Her body pushed out impurities with a violent grace. Quickly, and unapologetically.
Mary knew the difference. Of what a parent was supposed to do, and what they weren’t. At least that what she told Alberta. Her own were examples of both, moving to such extremes that neither end she found terribly useful. As she felt, trapped in her own freedoms.
Not that Alberta saw that side, or would have understood. She saw only the freedoms at the end of Mary’s smile. As her own heart lit up. With equal excitement and envy.
During the long drive home, it felt so much longer. She cursed her mother under her breath.
When they reached an intersection, the road across their path firing straight and endless in both directions, Alberta stared so hard into the dot that made the line that the two ends looped around, and connected. Repeating grain elevators and water towers, and secret rail. Where hills and fields rolled wind into empty flow; where no tree, building or body could ever give a sense of space, and where there was no forgiveness.
To Alberta it felt as though they were about to cross an old and sacred line. It felt as though they were crossing something you couldn’t go back on.
(an earlier section of the same work appears here)