Category: Literary Fiction

THURSDAY: 5 Nancys

BY NANCY KAY CLARK

Copyright is held by the author.

#1    Business Nancy
I HAVE lost myself. It’s registration day at McGill back before the internet, when all we had was flimsy paper cards to verify our identities. I’m supposed to take this card to various tables to sign up for my classes — but I can’t, because I have lost sight of the other Nancy Clark. I know what she looks like — unlike me, she’s lean, with slick hair, and well thought-out outfits. She’s majoring in business — not the wishy washy humanities I have fallen in to. I know this because I have her registration card and she presumably has mine. Trying not to panic, I stand in the middle of the crowded Sir Arthur Curry Gymnasium and shout: “Nancy? Nancy Clark? Has anybody seen Nancy Clark?”

#2    Sporty Nancy
For fun, I google myself and apparently I’m a sports nutritionist in Maryland with a runner’s body and a winning smile. This Nancy has actually managed to get her books published — albeit they are about nutrition. I wonder how much money I pull in? Do I have a big house in the burbs? Do I adore my twin boys, and balding husband or secretly wish to ditch the triathlon training and escape to Majorca with my assistant-slash-lover Emma?

#3    Pioneer Nancy
I find my gravestone. It is grey, old, dotted with moss and stands askew, but I can clearly make out the name on it: Nancy Clark.

“Hey, hey,” I call out to my brother. “Look, Ron, it’s me!”

We have stopped on our way to Pictou at the Durham County Cemetery, looking for relatives. It’s drizzling and the unkept grass drenches the bottoms of our jeans as we walk past the dead.

“Take my picture beside my gravestone.”

“No,” he says.

“Oh, come on.”

“No, I’m not going to do that. It’s morbid.”

I roll my eyes at him. “She lived to 80 — that’s pretty good for the 1850s.”

“She was probably a relative,” says my sister, who has joined us to contemplate the dearly departed Nancy. Lianne waves a list of relatives she’s printed off from some genealogy site.

“Huh,” I say, and touch the carved letters on the stone. I notice the thinning of the skin on the back my hand, the veins starting to emerge — perhaps an echo of Nancy’s 80-year-old hands, washing dishes, wringing out bed sheets, shelling peas, stitching hems, sweeping kitchen floors.

#4    West Coast Nancy
The idea that I’m dead hits home again, when I read fragments of my bones have been scraped out of the dirt on Picton’s pig farm in B.C. I’m eating a bagel with cream cheese when I read my name listed among the disappeared. “Holy shit!” I say to the cats.

I sit, sipping tea and think about my life in the Downtown East Side. I imagine it was full of take-out food wrappers, the smell of urine and stained mattresses on grimy floors. But I could be wrong. Perhaps I dreamt every night of sun-kissed prairie grass and the taste of Saskatoon berries. Perhaps I liked my life — was in love, had close friends. Or perhaps no matter what I tried, I could not quell the voices in my head (which seems the most likely).

#5    Me
Every morning now, at breakfast, the Nancys keep me company.

“You should take up jogging,” says Sporty Nancy. She has just come back from a five-k run, but looks calm and unsweaty. She checks her biometrics on her Fitbit.

“I think that ship’s sailed,” I mumble, curling my body around my teacup.

“Speak up,” says Business Nancy, in her pinstriped power pants suit. She steals a corner of my toast, pops an antacid and pours herself a cup of strong black coffee. “And sit up straight — you don’t make a good impression when you slouch. You’re never going to get a real job that way.”

“Is that all you’re going to eat, Nancy?” says Sporty, over the sound of a blender. “You know breakfast is what fuels you for the rest of the day. I can make you one of my protein-fortified wheatgrass and kale smoothies.”

“Looks putrid,” says Business, eyeing the green liquid in the blender. “By the way, Nancy, I’ve corrected the typos in your resume and revamped your cover letter. I emailed them to you this morning . . . now make sure to—”

“Don’t you have a well-paying, upwardly mobile job to get to?” I ask.

“Crap,” says Business, looking at her cell. “Crap. Where the hell are my keys? What the fuck happened to them?” Her voice rises, as she rummages inside an enormous Kate Spade bag. “Twenty fucking pockets in this thing — you’d think they’d be in one of them. I’m going to be late, I’m going to be late.” She grunts and absentmindedly rubs the hollow between her breasts.

“Heartburn again?” says Sporty, drinking her green smoothie and smacking her lips. “If only you would eat properly.”

“So says the closet chocolate fiend,” Business replies. “How many empty Tobelrone boxes do you have in your gym bag, eh? Aha!” She’s finally unearthed her keys.

“A little chocolate is actually good for you,” says Sporty, peering at her Fitbit again.

Business doesn’t answer her. Instead she’s peering at herself in the hall mirror. With one hand she pats her hair into place — even though it’s already in place. With the other hand, she presses her keys hard on her chest, and breathes slowly, deeply, in and out, in . . . and . . . out. The hand on her chest trembles.

“Right, right . . . ,” she says, her voice back in control. “I’ve got to go. Don’t wait dinner for me — I’ve got a late meeting. Now Nancy,” she calls to me as she saunters out the front door, “Apply for that job this morning.”

Meanwhile Sporty is doing the Warrior One yoga pose. “Okay, okay, okay, okay, green smoothie 200 calories, sliced avocado with glass of skinned milk, 12-grain toast with peanut butter, 500 calories, quarter cup of assorted nuts, 50 calories, okay, okay, okay, okay,” she mumbles, then shakes out of the pose. “Quick shower and then I’m off to my book signing.” Before jogging out of the kitchen, she tells us. “Exercise will do you all a world of good.”

“Well,” I say to my two remaining Nancys. “What should we do today?”

“Lots to do, lots to do,” says Pioneer Nancy, stirring a pot on the stove. She speaks with a bad Scottish accent. “The rugs need beatin’, laundry’s pilin’ up again, windows need washin’, and that linen closet needs a good sortin’ out, ye ken? We have a full day ahead of us, Lass.” She shakes her head and turns back to her porridge.

“And you,” I ask West Coast Nancy, who sits quietly on the chair beside me, one of the cats — the fluffy one — purring on her lap. “What do you want to do today?”

She shrugs. “Fuck if I know.” She has been picking that scab again, and a bright dot of blood marks the right cheek of her pale face, as she looks, just looks, out the window at the squirrels racing up and down the Manitoba Maple. “God, I need a cigarette.” Her voice is low, monotone; she buries her hands with their dirty fingernails into the plush belly of the cat.

I want to shake her, but instead I ask: “When did you get in this morning?”

“Don’t know, three maybe.” As she reaches for her mug of coffee, the sleeve of her old robe rides up. I catch a glimpse of a bruise on her forearm.

“You know,” I say. “You’re kind of retired, being dead. You don’t have to go out every night. You don’t have to . . .” My voice peters out. West Coast Nancy ignores me, says nothing. This is an old conversation between us — one I’m not willing to give up on. “I just don’t understand. I just want to know why, Nancy. Why did you get into that pickup with the farmer? He must have stunk of pig shit.”

She shrugs. Does she not know herself? Or is she just unwilling to offer me an explanation?

“Didn’t you know there was something off about him?”

She shrugs.

“But wasn’t he known on the streets as a bad john?”

She shrugs.

“Weren’t you aware of all those women disappearing? Shit, you probably knew half of them.”

“Fuck off!” West Coast Nancy bolts out of her chair. With a sharp meow of reproach, the cat falls from her lap. Reaching for the cigarettes in her pocket, West coast Nancy slams through the back door.

“Leave the poor lass alone,” says Pioneer Nancy, dropping a bowl in front of me. “And eat your breakfast — no not that green stuff. Have a good bowl of oatmeal. You’re skin and bones, you are.”

I pour maple syrup on the mush. “She’s so fucking frustrating.”

“She dinnae have to give you a reason. She dinnae owe you anything,” Pioneer says.

“But how could she get herself into such a mess? Why was she so stupid? Why didn’t she —”

“Why dinnae she what, Nancy?”

I pick up my spoon and hold it in mid air, as I try to figure out what it is I’m trying to figure out. Out of all the possibilities Nancy Clark could be, why did she choose the one that ended up on that pig farm? “Why didn’t she . . . make better choices, be—”

“Be a different Nancy Clark? Be a better Nancy Clark? Be like you?”

“No, I don’t mean that. It’s just . . .”

Pioneer sits down beside me with her bowl and pulls at her vein-ridden hands. “You never ask me, ye ken.”

“Ask you what?”

She shakes her head as if shrugging off a bad memory.

“What? What is it?”

At first, she doesn’t answer. We sit and eat in silence, until she begins to speak. Her voice soft and wistful. “I kept thinkin’ I had made a mistake somewhere. Had I not taken care of them good enough? Did I not have enough milk to feed them? Enough coal for the fire to keep them warm? Each time it happened, each time something went wrong  . . .  I’d pray, please Lord not again. How can this happen to me again? What could I do to stop it?” Her voice, now, gains strength. “I did not choose to lose my babies, but I lost all three anyway.”

She takes out her hanky and blows her sniffles away. “Some things just don’t work out the way you expect. Now stop this, Nancy Clark, stop this tomfoolery of talkin’ to yourselves. Life is just life and death is just death. Eat up and let’s get on with it.”