THURSDAY: Just Like Family Part Two

BY MARY J. BREEN

This is the conclusion of a two-part story. Read the first part. Copyright is held by the author.

“TYLER,” JOANNE asked, “where did Mummy go last night? Do you know?” She was trying to keep her voice light and ordinary.

Tyler’s eyes didn’t leave the screen. “She went out; dontcha ’member that?”

“I know, Tyler, but well, um, do you know who she went with, or where? And you kids really shouldn’t sit so close.” They didn’t move.

She found herself an aspirin, and made herself a cup of tea trying not to imagine the bad things that might have prevented Rose from coming home. Just then the phone rang, and she grabbed for it, but it was her mother, reminding her of an aunt’s upcoming birthday. Joanne asked her what she thought she should do about Rose, and her mother suggested asking Father McCoy. “After all,” she said, “you can’t be too careful.”

It was already 9:15, and the workshop was starting at 10. Joanne fed the children porridge, made two hurried lunches, and took both children after all. She left a note for Rose taped to the front door.

After the kids got set up with their scraps of cloth, yarn, and buttons, Joanne found a pay phone and called Father McCoy.

“Well, Joanne, I think she’s taking advantage of your good will,” he said. “But then she’s not one of us, is she. Not our kind of people.”

“I don’t know about that, Father, it’s just that I’m worried.”

“Of course you are, my dear,” he said. “I should think it’s time for the boys in blue. They’ll help you. Take the lad off your hands. After all, you never know in cases like this.”

Joanne thanked him and hurried back to the kids. By noon, everyone was miserable. Tyler was only interested in making cars; Emily was much too young to sew anything, and Joanne’s sinuses were throbbing. Joanne bundled them back into the car and drove home while the kids ate the middles out of their cold sandwiches and swatted at each other. The note was still hanging on the front door.

After she put Emily down for her nap, Joanne decided it was time to do the right thing. Time to call the police. After only about half an hour, the doorbell rang. On the step stood a tall, tired-looking man in a grey tweed overcoat. He was absorbed in trying to clean the snow off his glasses with a narrow scarf. When she opened the door, he put his glasses back on, pulled out his police identity card, and introduced himself as Sergeant Montigny.

Joanne led him down the hall past the living room where Tyler was watching TV. While the policeman wedged himself into the breakfast nook, she put out a plate of homemade cookies, and instead of just using mugs, she got out her grandmother’s tea service. The policeman busied himself checking out the room — the ivy hanging above the table and Emily’s drawing of wild red circles and black dots pinned to the wall beside him, even getting up to read the pamphlet on the fridge: Healthy Foods for the Two-Year-Old.

“Ah, I see you go to St. Anthony’s,” he said, nodding his approval as he pointed to the church bulletin also posted there. “Only been there once. The wife and I, we go to Holy Name.”

Joanne smiled and thought about pointing out that he wasn’t here to investigate her. Then he sat down again, pinched the bridge of his nose, and pulled a ballpoint pen and a brown coil-topped notepad from his breast pocket. He licked his thumb to help him find an empty page. Just like in the movies. “Now about this missing friend of yours.”

For the next 20 minutes, he asked question after question — about Rose’s habits, her state of mind, her friends, her husband. Joanne was embarrassed to realize how little she knew about Rose. Then he turned the questions back to her, even asking about her ex-husband — where he lived and which law firm he worked for. He also inquired about their babysitting arrangement, asking Joanne if she, in turn, left Emily with Rose when she went out at night. When Joanne told him she tried never to leave Emily with anyone, he congratulated her, assuring her that she was doing the right thing, that children are always best looked after by their mothers, as his wife did with his.

“Well, Mrs. Henderson,” he said, “there’s not much we can do until she’s been gone longer than this. She’s an adult, and we don’t have any evidence of foul play. If you’re willing to look after the little lad — I mean, I don’t think we should call in Children’s Aid unless you’re not willing, but I think he’s better off with you than with strangers, don’t you, until we find his mother?” He finished his tea and stared down at his notepad, tapping the coil with his pen as he waited for her answer.

“Well, I suppose so. But, I know what you could do. Get in touch with her family and find out where her sister was staying. She’s from a reserve near a place called Red Lake. There couldn’t be that many families there with a daughter named Roseanne Nelson. They might —”

“What!?” He stared at her. “A reserve? You mean she’s an Indian? You’re telling me she’s an Indian and she didn’t come home?” He clicked his pen, snapped his notepad closed, and shoved them both back into his pocket. As he pushed himself to his feet, his head bounced soundly off the flower pot above him, tipping muddy water onto himself, the table, and the oatmeal cookies. He marched down the hall, holding the top of his head and calling back to her. “You women! Believe anything, you would. She’s drunk, is all! She got drunk and she’ll be home when she’s slept it off. I can’t believe you called us for an Indian.” His hand was on the doorknob. He was smiling now, a joyless, mean smile. “Don’t look so shocked, ma’am. Indians are always doing this, leaving their kids with other people. They must think they’re all one big family. I come from up north. You don’t know them like I do.”

Joanne hurried after him, not believing what she was hearing. “But, but she’s not like that! She’s never done this before. She’s a good mother, she —”

“Sure, right, then where is she?” He was gripping the edge of the storm door, holding it against the wind.

“Then what am I to do?” Joanne asked.

“Look, lady, I’m a busy man. If you don’t hear from her by, say, tomorrow night, call back and we’ll start the wheels. But she’ll be back, believe me. And yeah, sure,” he said, holding up his hand to stop her. “Go ahead and call the hospitals if it’ll make you feel better.” He let the door slam behind him.

Joanne watched him stomp past the open gate, wrestle with the locked car door, and then roar away from the curb. The car’s tail end skidded before he managed to right it, and suddenly Joanne felt a little dizzy, like she too was being sped away from everything safe and good and true. She snapped the locks on the door and leaned her head against the cold of the narrow window beside it, trying to ignore the panic rising in her throat. Then she heard a little sniff behind her. She turned to see Tyler watching her, his lower lip quivering and his eyes very dark. “Oh, Tyler,” she said as she hugged him against her leg, rubbing his dark messy hair. “It’s OK, Tyler. It’ll be OK. Come on. Let’s get Emily up.” He nodded gravely, let his racing cars fall on the carpet, and followed her to the bedroom.

She cut up apples for the kids’ snack while she made a plan. She would get the kids occupied with Emily’s blocks in the living room, and start calling the hospitals. Suddenly both children stopped chattering. They had heard it. A key was turning in the lock, and the front door was being pushed open. All three watched as Rose turned back to wave and then closed the door behind her. Tyler and Emily yelled “Mummy” and “Osie” in unison, and ran to her and each wrapping themselves around one of her legs. Joanne rushed after them. Rose had crouched down, nearly toppling over as they hugged her from both sides.

“Rose! Are you OK?” Joanne shouted over the children’s laughter.

Rose shrugged, making a so-so gesture with the hand that had been rubbing Tyler’s back. She stood up and each child grabbed a hand, and, hopping and chattering, tried to pull her into the kitchen. Rose laughed, pulling away long enough to take off her coat and boots, and brush the snow off her hair. Then they led her to the spot where Sergeant Montigny had sat, and she dropped down heavily. She kissed them again, and told them to take their apples and go watch TV for a little while. For the first time, Joanne didn’t object.

Joanne made another pot of tea, and sat down across from Rose who was shivering as she wrapped both hands around the mug, hunching over to breathe in the sweet steam. “The kids are great, eh?”

“Well, yes, but —” Joanne said.

Rose slouched down so she could rest her head on the wall behind her. She rubbed her forehead, took a sip, and reached for a cookie from the plate still on the table. “Weird, this cookie’s wet,” she said. She put it back and felt the others. “Joanne, they’re all kinda wet, and it looks like pepper or something on them —”

“Never mind the cookies!” Joanne said as she took them and dumped them into the garbage. “Just tell me what happened! Where were you?”

“OK, OK.” Rose sat up a bit straighter. “There isn’t much to tell. Like I told you, I went over to see my sister at our cousin’s place. We talked and stuff, and then they ordered Chinese food, but I only had a little bit as I didn’t feel so good. Still don’t. I still have this headache, and now my throat is really sore! Anyway, the others had a few beers, but I didn’t. Don’t look at me like that. I wasn’t drinking. Honest!

“Then around midnight I went to lay down, and I guess I just fell asleep. I woke up in the night really sick. I threw up and went back to bed. When I woke up, it was 10 o’clock, and I still didn’t feel so good.” She rubbed the ridge along her eyebrows, and Joanne noticed the darkness around her eyes. She got up to get Rose the bottle of aspirin.

“Thanks.” She took two, and Joanne put the bottle back. “Then my sister wanted to talk to me, eh? ’cause Charlie, her husband back home, is pretty sick. He’s got cancer, and Louise doesn’t know what to do: let him stay at home in Red Lake and die there — that’s what he wants — or move him to Kenora for some sorta treatment that probably won’t work anyway. So Louise and me, we went out for breakfast — well, she did; I couldn’t eat anythin’ — but we talked, and then we went back and she packed her bag and left. And now here I am.”

“But, Rose, why didn’t you let me know? Why didn’t you call me?”

“I called this morning, but you weren’t home. And I tried again around 12:30 but your line was busy. Besides, my sister needed me. I knew you’d take good care of Tyler. You’d let him read Emily’s books and play with Emily’s blocks, and you’d feed him porridge, right? And I’ll bet you all went to that workshop, whatever it was, too, eh?” Rose smiled sadly. “Jeez, Joanne, it was only a few hours. You know I’d do the same for you and Emily.”

The wind was louder now, whining and whistling in the chimney. Joanne and Rose both shivered. “But Rose, I was worried,” she said. “I thought maybe something had happened to you so I phoned the police, and —”

“What? You called the police?” Joanne signalled her to hush, so Rose dropped her voice to a hissing whisper. “Are you crazy?”

“But Rose, I didn’t know where you were! You’ve never done this before. You could’ve been in a car accident, or, or, attacked, or I don’t know. I thought I should do something.”

“You called the police on me? But I thought we were just like family! We live in the same house, look after each other’s kids —”

“But Rose —”

“I knew Tyler’d be safe with you and Em, and he was! He was with you! And he’s just a little kid! How can a little kid be such a problem?”

“But, but I didn’t know if you were safe or what! Besides —”

Rose now spoke very slowly. “What did you think the police would do, Joanne? Did you think you were on TV where the police send 16 cars every time someone calls for help? I can’t believe you called the police on me.” She turned and stared out the window past the cookbooks and the plants and Emily’s kaleidoscope piled on the sill. A branch of an old bush scritched against the pane. “Oh, what’s the difference? You just don’t get it. You with all your books and your education and your church and your fancy lawyer ex-husband, and you don’t have a clue. So now I’m in shit for abandoning Tyler. Great.”

“No, no.” Joanne was quick. “You’re not. It’s all right. It’s me he’s mad at, not you. They aren’t going to do anything because, well, he said they wouldn’t, I mean, they don’t when —” Her voice dropped to a whisper.

“What do you mean, Joanne?” Rose sat up straight and leaned forward, her eyes narrowing. “What do you mean?”

“Well, he said he didn’t really think it would be necessary, in the circumstances. He, uh, said I shouldn’t worry because, because —”

“Wait a minute. Wait a damned minute. Is this something to do with being Indian? Are you telling me that he isn’t doing anything because I’m probably just another drunken Indian, that I’m not in trouble because I’m not worth takin’ any trouble for? Is that it?” Her eyes were bright with tears. “Didn’t you try ’n tell him? Or,” her smile was bitter, “or, is that what you think too?”

“No, Rose, I don’t. I don’t! I — ” but Rose had turned away again, again staring straight out at the snow-covered garden. Suddenly, Emily started to wail. Both women looked back. The children were standing at the kitchen door, and as soon as they saw their mothers’ faces, they let go of each other’s hands and ran, Tyler into his mother’s outstretched arm, and Emily burying her head in her mother’s lap.

Rose stood up. “Come on, Tyler, get your stuff. We’re going home.” In the hallway, she stopped and dug in her pocket for Joanne’s key. She carefully put it in the little dish on the hall table before closing the door behind them.

Joanne started to call after her, but if there was a right thing to do or say, if ever there were right things to do or say, Joanne had no idea what they were.

One comment

  1. Gerarda Schouten

    wow! I would like to think the response of the policeman was fiction. Still a lot of prejudice against “Indians” that needs to be changed. Good story. Had my interest til the end.

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